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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.

(Page 4 of 4)

While much uranium in the region does occur in formations above the water table, the bottom of the breccia pipes are located in the upper portion of the Redwall Limestone, a principal aquifer supplying springs in the Grand Canyon and wells for much of the region, Dr. Shuey told Congress in March.

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“When you take uranium and the other trace elements out of their resting places in nature and expose them to the environment,” Shuey says by phone, “you expose them in higher concentrations to the environment and intensify their effects. People don’t appreciate the cumulative impact of mining in a consolidated area. There’s a very real threat.” A flash flood swept through Havasu Creek last week. That same watershed includes the Canyon Mine and numerous uranium claims.

Abe Springer, a hydrologist and researcher at Northern Arizona University at Flagstaff, has made a career studying the movement of groundwater through the Redwall and other aquifers into seeps and springs that supply not only hikers, but also most of the region’s animal life with the water they need to survive.

“Once these elements became mobile through mining activities,” Dr. Springer told Congress in his March testimony, “they would continue to be mobile through the aquifer and eventually discharge in springs impacting the human uses of water of these springs.”

Even so, some industry figures dispute any connection between the Orphan uranium mine and higher radiation in Horn Creek.

A “fact sheet” e-mailed by Quaterra’s Mr. Spiering says, regarding water pollution, that “statements that the historic operations at the Orphan Mine have been polluting Horn Creek are false.” It cites a 2004 US Geological Survey study showing dissolved uranium in a range from 8.6 to 29 parts per billion and “within the EPA levels of safe drinking water.”

Closer look at USGS study

But a closer examination of the 2004 results finds that some uranium concentrations are at the upper end of the safe range for Horn Creek.

The same study’s results for nearby Salt Creek (at 29 to 31 p.p.b.) “approached or exceeded the US Environmental Protection Agency’s drinking water standard” of 30 p.p.b., according to Shuey’s testimony to Congress.

The two creeks – Salt and Horn – also had by far the highest levels of the 20 springs and seeps tested in that study, Shuey testified. That USGS study also did not seek to assign causes of the higher radiation levels, he noted.

But the potential impact of tainted groundwater on native Americans, hikers, and local wildlife – as well as major cities downstream – are all reasons Rep. Rául Grijalva (D) of Arizona has sponsored legislation to permanently withdraw federal land around Grand Canyon National Park from uranium mining.

“I hope we’ve matured enough not to forget history,” Representative Grijalva says in a phone interview. “Protection of water quality in the Colorado River is vital to the long-term health and safety of humans and other species. We can’t afford to simply issue permits and decades from now simply dismiss the consequences as unintended.

“We should know better than that.”