Do uranium mines belong near Grand Canyon?
Mining companies stake claims on federal land adjoining the park, while opponents say drinking water will be at risk.
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Some are asking for exactly such a study. With cities like Phoenix relying on clean Colorado River water, Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano (D) is calling for an “overall environmental impact analysis,” citing the uranium boom’s “potential to seriously harm” the water quality of Grand Canyon National Park and the Lower Colorado River.Skip to next paragraph
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Uranium company officials say fears about radioactive contamination are overblown. New mining methods, far tougher environmental standards, and desert-dry conditions for most mines mean minimal risk to the Colorado River and the region’s precious groundwater resources, they say.
“Yes, there were issues in the past,” says Ron Hochstein, president of Denison Mines, a Toronto-based company with at least nine mines under development in the area targeted by Congress. “But that’s not the way we do things today. We understand and know a lot more about uranium, radium, and radon and the impacts of those. So to say some things that happened in the 1950s and 1960s will happen again today is not a good comparison.”
Proven deposits are likely to be mined
Whether or not the thousands of unproven claims are ever developed, a fair number of uranium mining sites seem almost certain to reemerge. “Congress’s action only applies to unproven claims,” Mr. Clark points out, leaning against a fence at the Canyon Mine site.
Denison’s group of established mine sites – including the Canyon Mine in the Kaibab National Forest a few miles south of the park – are among those likely to reemerge. The Canyon Mine was mothballed in the 1980s – before it had even opened – because of sinking uranium prices. It is a proven site: Uranium is there. Denison must still apply for new state environmental permits in order to proceed, but expects its mines to begin opening around 2010.
Despite Horn Creek pollution, the good news is that recent studies have shown that most springs and creeks in the Grand Canyon still have good water quality: Uranium and other trace metals appear in low concentrations, according to congressional testimony.
The bad news, experts say, is that digging into the cylindrical vertical rock formations in which uranium is found – they’re called “breccia pipes” – can “mobilize” the uranium, causing it to oxidize when water from periodic downpours seeps down through the rock strata.
Indeed, the negative impact of water on uranium mines should not be minimized even in the desert, says Chris Shuey, a scientist who directs the Uranium Impact Assessment Program, a nonprofit research and information center. His research in the Churchrock area of the Navajo Nation near Gallup, N.M. – where uranium was mined and processed between 1952 and 1983 – showed statistically significant effects on human health from the elevated levels of radioactivity in the region.