In the rush for uranium, cooler heads prevail—for now

Posted: Dec 17, 2017

Greens got what seemed like a rare bit of good news when the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) last week released their Final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the Northern Arizona Proposed Withdrawal. The report looks at the potential impacts of removing federal lands near the Grand Canyon from mining consideration, for the new two decades.

The BLM proposes four alternatives ranging from no protection of the acreage in question to a moratorium on new mining claims on various portions of it. Ultimately, it favors the one that removes about one million acres from going under the drill bit. The moratorium is an extension of a two-year time-out put in place in 2009, which had reversed a Bush II-era policy encouraging a uranium boom and drawing foreign interests to the West.

If Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar accepts the BLM’s recommendation, which he will likely do, valid existing rights are not subject to the ban, and the Final EIS estimates that 11 uranium mines could be up and running in the area in the near future. Four have already been approved.

The valid claims are located within three sections of land; two north of Grand Canyon National Park on BLM Arizona Strip lands and the North Kaibab Ranger District of the Kaibab National Forest, and one south of the Grand Canyon on the Tusayan Ranger District of the Kaibab National Forest.)

Commenting on the reality of active uranium mining near the Grand Canyon, BLM Director Bob Abbey said, “The preferred alternative would allow for cautious, continued development with strong oversight that could help us fill critical gaps in our knowledge about water quality and environmental impacts of uranium mining in the area.”

The implication of Abbey’s comment is that we don’t yet have a grasp on what the effects of uranium mining in this area will be – that we’ll have to wait to see what happens. This is an unsettling prospect when reflecting on the impact uranium has had on western people and landscapes - and on the renewed push in several western states for new mining and milling operations.

Last month the cleanup of one of this country’s most destructive uranium mining operations was declared complete, although health problems for nearby residents persist. From 1944 to 1986, over 4 million tons of uranium were unearthed on the Navajo Reservation, which includes the Skyline Mine in Monument Valley, Utah. Until recently, kids played on mounds of radioactive mine tailings from Olijato Mesa, communities congregated for prayer and families gathered around dinner tables in contaminated structures. In the meantime, cancer has become epidemic there.

The $7.5 million cleanup marks the first significant remediation of a mine on the Navajo Nation. Additional sites on the rez still to be addressed include five regions in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. Over the next several years, contamination of water sources, homes and mine sites will be grappled with. A billion dollars or more will likely be spent.

Elsewhere in Utah, east of Canyonlands National Park near the Colorado border, is the La Sal #2 Mine. The BLM recently issued a draft Environmental Assessment on the proposed removal of 10,000 to 20,000 tons of uranium ore from the Lisbon Valley. The public can comment on the plan through November 7.

There are two additional uranium projects in Utah that the public can also weigh in on. One is a license extension for Shootaring Canyon Mill, near Lake Powell. By renewing the license, Uranium One, the Canadian-based company that owns the presently-inactive mill, will keep the processing plant attractive to potential buyers. (Recently, the company sold most of its uranium operations to a subsidiary of the Russian nuclear agency that keeps Iran supplied with reactor fuel.) Opponents of the license extension argue the plant should have been decommissioned—which would involve removal of the contaminated material on-site—decades ago. Comments on the license extension will be accepted through November 25.

The other project is the license renewal for the White Mesa Uranium Mill Facility, located four miles north of the Ute Mountain Ute reservation. The mill has been processing uranium from source rock and from remediated mines since 1979. Hundreds of thousands of tons of radioactive material have been stockpiled on the site, and there is concern among tribal members and their resource managers about possible groundwater contamination. Comments on the proposal will be accepted through November 14.

In New Mexico, despite both the ongoing health issues from now-defunct mines and the costly cleanup operations underway, the Navajo are fighting a plan to re-open a mine in their radioactive backyard. This one is on Mount Taylor near Grants, a site sacred to at least five groups, including the Navajo, Zuni, Hopi, Laguna and Acoma. The mine has been on ‘standby’ since 1989 but renewed interest in uranium production has the Texas based mine owner, Hydro Resources Inc., interested in reactivating the largest uranium resource in the U.S.Opponents of the mine worry that it will contaminate the aquifer that provides the only drinking water source for 15,000 Navajo citizens.

In June, a Navajo group filed a complaint with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights against the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the agency that gave the company an extension of the mine’s ‘standby’ status. The New Mexico Mining and Minerals Division has yet to weigh in on what they think should happen at Mt. Taylor. A decision is expected soon.

In Wyoming, another cautionary tale emerged last month from the Irigaray and Christensen Ranch uranium processing facility near Casper. The NRC launched a special investigation after yellowcake uranium powder escaped a dryer enclosure, possibly exposing workers to the radioactive material. Their findings are due to be released sometime this month. It wasn’t the first time there’s been trouble on the property. The same company, Uranium One, was issued a notice of violation by the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality when upwards of 10,000 gallons of sodium chloride escaped the facility and the company failed to report it in a timely manner. Wyoming law requires such incidents to be reported verbally within 24 hours. Uranium One sent an email to the agency two weeks after the leak.

In Idaho last month, the NRC licensed France's state-owned nuclear reactor builder to construct and to operate a gas centrifuge uranium enrichment plant. The $3 billion Eagle Rock Enrichment Facility, which would be located near Idaho Falls, could be operational by 2014.

Colorado seemed headed for a uranium renaissance when, earlier this year, regulators ok’ed the first uranium mill to be built in the U.S. in over 25 years. The $175 million Piñon Ridge Mill would be built west of Grand Junction on the Utah border. Locals residents are protesting the permit.

The proposal lit a match under mining companies, six of which were issued leases by the Department of Energy (DOE) for 31 tracts along the Dolores and San Miguel rivers on 25,000 acres in southwest Colorado. DOE estimates that there are 13.5 million pounds of uranium ore in the area.

But, in the rush to develop this infamous resource (again), there was a rare moment of rationality two weeks ago when a federal judge ordered DOE officials to halt permits for exploring and mining in Colorado. U.S. District Judge William Martinez said the agency “acted arbitrarily and capriciously in failing to analyze site-specific impacts” on the people and places in the path of the mining boom. He said the DOE violated environmental laws, including the Endangered Species Act, by failing to consult U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service scientists about the potential impacts of the extractions.

Forcing the DOE to look before it leaps in Colorado inspires cautious optimism, in the same way the suggested moratorium at the Grand Canyon does. But circumspection is still essential. (Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) already have introduced legislation aimed at blocking the moratorium, and Rep. Jeff Flake of Arizona has attached a similar rider to the spending bill for Interior and U.S. EPA.)

When asked about his own legislation aimed at making the Grand Canyon withdrawal permanent,  Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) charged his fellow lawmakers with playing a dangerous game with a national treasure. (After all, Arizona made $18.5 billion in tourism revenue in 2008—who would even risk screwing that up?) “I don't care how much the company tells you about modern technology. The fact of the matter is there are consequences we don't know about,” he said. 

~Heather Hansen

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