In the eyes of geologists, the formation of the mile-deep Grand Canyon ranks as one of the greatest events of Earth's history. Its awesome beauty attracts 2 million visitors annually to Grand Canyon National Park. Along its rims other, lesser-known geological formations - mineral rich underground veins known as breccia pipes - are valued for their economic promise to the depressed uranium mining industry.
Plans to open a new uranium mine nine miles south of the main entrance to Grand Canyon National Park have developers and environmentalists at odds. In September, the United States Forest Service authorized the Denver-based Energy Fuels Nuclear Inc., to open a mine 13 miles south of the canyon rim, just east of US Highway 180 near Tusayan.
Based on an environmental impact study, Leonard A. Lindquist, supervisor of Kaibab National Forest, concluded that the mine posed no significant threat of contaminating the surrounding area with radioactivity or disrupting forest wildlife.
Energy Fuels Nuclear, which plans to excavate 200 tons or more when the mine is opened, is one of the survivors of a US uranium mining industry hit hard in recent years by a drop in the market. It is the leading domestic producer of ``yellowcake,'' a uranium product refined into fuel pellets for the country's nuclear power plants.
The ore at the Canyon Mine site is five to six times as concentrated as at deposits in Wyoming and New Mexico and in the breccia pipe, says Ron Nuzman, a spokesman for the firm. Even at the current price of $17 a pound for yellowcake, down from more than $40 several years ago, the high-grade ore makes for a profitable venture and one that could help the US nuclear industry avoid dependence on foreign sources, he said.
But to Canyon Under Seige, a Flagstaff-based environmentalist coalition, and the Havasupai Indians, whose 550 members live on a reservation about 35 miles down the watershed from the mine site, the venture is no bargain at any price.
The Indians feel that accidental runoff from the mine could contaminate Havasu Creek at Supai, a small tribal community below the canyon's south rim. Alfred Hanna, vice-chairman of the tribal council, says concern over possible contamination could discourage tourists from visiting the reservation. Mary Sojourner, a Canyon Under Siege co-founder, says the opening of the Canyon Mine, which also could disrupt breeding patterns of elk and deer, would be a dangerous precedent for opening other mines on federal land along the south rim.
Members of the coalition, who staged a demonstration Sunday, are seeking to halt development of the mine until a more extensive impact study can be completed.
Ms. Sojourner blamed the mine's approval on the Federal Mining Act of 1872, saying it strongly favors mining on public lands at the expense of modern-day environmental concerns.
In contrast, Energy Fuels Nuclear failed to win clearance this year to develop two other mines on state-owned land closer to the creek. Arizona officials who aren't compelled by the Mining Act, cited the threat to the Havasupi's water source and religious sites as two of several reasons.
Energy Fuels Nuclear, which operates six other mines on land administered by the US Bureau of Land Management north of the canyon's opposite rim, is committed to returning all mine sites to their original state after 10 years of mining, Mr. Nuzman said.
Last week his firm also agreed to stop groundbreaking at the Canyon Mine site until Nov. 24, so that regional US Forest Service officials in Albuquerque, N.M., can respond to the environmentalists' request for a stay.
The firm will refine no ore at the Canyon Mine, Nuzman said, but will truck it to a mill in Blanding, Utah. At the mine, protective measures, such as earthen berms and drainage canals, would virtually eliminate the possibility of radioactive runoff, he said.
The coalition cites two accidents to dispute Nuzman's reassurances.In August 1984, a flash flood at the firm's Hack Canyon Mine washed several tons of high-grade uranium ore downstream toward the Grand Canyon. And last May a truck headed for the Utah mill spilled about 100 pounds of radioactive ore after it hit a horse.
In each mishap, Energy Fuels Nuclear cleaned up the contamination. But canyon lovers say the only way to be sure one of America's most prized natural areas is not damaged is to keep Canyon Mine closed.