Advocates demand halt to uranium mine near the Grand Canyon

The Grand Canyon truly lives up to its name, being the largest canyon on Earth and one of the most popular national parks in America. But due to uranium mining in the area, some advocates are warning it could become the site of a future environmental disaster, which threatens to make one Indigenous village “extinct.”

More than 80 groups signed onto a statement on Monday — representing Indigenous communities, scientists and environmental nonprofits such as the Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity — directed at President Joe Biden and Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs, demanding they close the Pinyon Plain uranium mine, which is located near the Grand Canyon.

“We have a choice in front of us. Allowing the Pinyon Plain mine to proceed is subjecting this landscape and its interconnected waters to a legacy of devastation and disregarding the rights of the Indigenous peoples on the land,” Sanober Mirza, Arizona program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association, said in the statement. “Or we can choose a different path — one that holds a promise of protecting the Grand Canyon’s cultural sanctity, its people and natural resources.”

To understand why the mine’s opponents feel so strongly, one can turn to Amber Reimondo, who work as energy director at a conservationist non-profit called the Grand Canyon Trust. Reimondo explained to Salon by email that, on the one hand, Biden permanently banned mining operations on nearly 1 million acres of federal managed lands by creating the Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni – Ancestral Footprints of the Grand Canyon National Monument in August 2023. Yet the Pinyon Plain mine was exempt from this prohibition, and Reimondo argues that the impact on the region has been “several fold.”

“What they’ve created here is a long-term, slow motion environmental disaster.”

“The Grand Canyon region as a whole and especially the location of the mine, is deeply significant to Indigenous cultures and is a place where tribal members have conducted ceremonies, collected medicine, hunted, and more, for centuries,” Reimondo said. “The mine also overlies critical and complex [and] not well understood groundwater systems. One aquifer in particular — the Red Wall Muav Aquifer — is the sole source of water for the remote Havasupai Village of Supai inside the Grand Canyon. The mine poses a contamination threat to these groundwater resources not just today, but importantly, after the mine’s mere 28-month operational lifespan has concluded and the mining operator ‘cleans up’ and moves on.”

Supai is so remote, it’s only accessible only by helicopter or an 8-mile mule ride or hike, Reimondo explained, noting that if the newly-oxygenated groundwater comes into contact with nearby rocks, minerals like arsenic and uranium will be dissolved by the groundwater and enter aquifers used by the local community and essential to local ecology, including Havasu Falls. Taylor McKinnon, Southwest Director for the Center for Biological Diversity, expressed similar concerns.

“Ultimately, this mine is going to require political leadership,” McKinnon told Salon in an interview, referring to both the Biden and Hobbs administrations. “Those administration’s agencies have the authority to fix this problem if they so choose, and that’s what they should do.”

Grand Canyon Uranium MinePinyon Plain uranium mine, which is located near the Grand Canyon. (Photo courtesy of Bruce Gordon/Ecoflight)

“We have detailed strenuously for years that neither regulators nor industry can ensure against the permanent and irretrievable damage to Grand Canyon’s aquifers and springs,” McKinnon added. “This mine was approved originally in 1986, under a record of decision from the US Forest Service under a presumption that it was highly unlikely that the mine would encounter groundwater, and further unlikely that if it did, it had the potential to contaminate deeper aquifers in the springs that they feed. Subsequent state permitting from the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality has basically parroted those same assumptions.”

Yet McKinnon alleges that in 2016 the mine punctured a perched aquifer, causing roughly 10 million gallons of water per year to drain into the mine workings. From there he asserts that a surface pond formed with water that has concentrations of uranium and arsenic far in excess of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s water quality standards. Not only does this threaten the local endangered and endemic species, but it also impacts the nearby Havasupai tribe.

Havasupai means “people of the blue-green water,” McKinnon said. “It’s their longstanding cultural identity, and it is the water they drink, they farm with and that provides for all of their tourism economy because it is this just a beautiful series of massive verdant waterfalls that flow through the village and down into a series of waterfalls and pools where people camp and they derive tourism dollars.”

In a 2022 letter of opposition, the Havasupai Tribal Council, laid out what is at stake in the uranium mining controversy.

“Our identity as a people is intrinsically intertwined with the health of Havasu Creek and the environment to which it gives life,” the tribe’s letter explained. “We use this water for drinking, gardening and irrigating, municipal uses, and cultural and religious uses. If the water source becomes contaminated like we have seen in other areas of Arizona due to uranium mining, we will no longer be able to live in our homes and Supai Village will become extinct.”

These fears are based on precedent. The nearby Navajo Nation is scattered with old uranium mines — over 500, in fact — awaiting cleanup, exposing locals to risk of “lung cancer from inhalation of radioactive particles, as well as bone cancer and impaired kidney function from exposure to radionuclides in drinking water,” according to the EPA. Likewise, members of the Ute Mountain Ute tribe in White Mesa, Utah have protested against uranium mines they say have contaminated local groundwater, air and even wildlife.

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“At a time when humanity faces increasingly apocalyptic conditions due to global warming, nuclear power is presented as an alternative that helps ‘in reducing greenhouse gas emissions to address climate change.'”

Energy Fuels, Inc.​​, the American uranium mining and production company that owns the Pinyon Plain mine, as well as many in White Mesa, referred Salon to a FAQ sheet that (among other things) touted the nuclear energy powered by uranium as “the largest source of carbon-free electricity in the U.S. by a wide margin,” concluding that “uranium is indispensable in the fight against climate change, as recognized in the recent COP28 Climate Summit in Dubai. Nuclear energy currently accounts for approximately 20% of all of the electricity generated in the United States and 50% of the country’s carbon-free electricity.” The company’s website states they have produced about two-thirds of all U.S. uranium for the past several years.

At a time when humanity faces increasingly dire conditions due to global warming, nuclear power is presented as an alternative that helps “in reducing greenhouse gas emissions to address climate change.” Energy Fuels also referred Salon to the decision by the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) to keep the mine open, with the ADEQ deciding that “the natural hydrogeologic protections at the mine site are expected to prevent any potential impacts to groundwater resulting from mining operations.” Curtis Moore, the senior vice president of marketing and corporate development at Energy Fuels, claimed that the mine will not have an adverse effect on the environment.

“The vast majority of science clearly demonstrates that this small, 17-acre mine will have no adverse environmental or health impacts — and it is actually a clean energy resource as it will provide fuel for carbon free nuclear energy,” Moore told Salon by email. “There are a few anti-nuclear activist groups who are engaged in what can only be called a disinformation and fear campaign. But their claims are easily debunked.”

Referring to the executive summary from the Aquifer Protection Permit issued to the Pinyon Plain mine, Moore said that there are a “multitude of groundwater protections in place, both natural and man-made. Despite some people’s fears, there are no risks of adverse impacts to groundwater.” Moore also said that there are government regulators and other experts “who have studied this mine extensively,” including the geology and hydrology, and they agree with Energy Fuels that this mine is safe. He likewise dismissed the accusations that they pierced two isolated aquifers at the mine as an exaggeration.

“Our mine shaft didn’t ‘flood’ – as everyone expected, a little water from those isolated aquifers flows into the shaft – about 15-20 gallons per minute or the same amount as about 1.5 garden hoses – not that much,” Moore explained. “However, if you left a garden hose on continuously for 6 years, you’d have 40 – 50 million gallons of water. It sounds like a lot to the lay-person, but it’s not much, and it is very easy to manage.”

He said that the water was not contaminated, asserting that the water had naturally elevated levels of uranium because of its proximity to the uranium deposit. “We didn’t spray it into the forest,” Moore said. “Early on, we used some evaporators (we have to evaporate all water at the mine) that allowed a little mist to drift across the fence-line on very windy days.” Finally, Moore said that Red Butte — a hill four miles south of the mine that the Havasupai regard as sacred — will not be impacted by the mining activity.

“The mine poses a contamination threat to these groundwater resources not just today, but importantly, after the mine’s mere 28 month operational life span has concluded and the mining operator ‘cleans up’ and moves on.”

“All we can say is that we won’t impact Red Butte, and when we’re done mining, the land will be restored completely,” Moore said.

However, McKinnon described the situation with the uranium mine quite differently. When asked about the scientific research used to justify continuing operations, McKinnon observed that the subject is controversial. “That directly contradicts peer-reviewed science saying that there is a risk… and if that happens, it will be impossible to clean up.”

The broader point, as McKinnon put it, was that “at best, there is significant scientific disagreement about their allegations. Regulators should not be approving this mine and should not be taking these risks in the face of that disagreement and that uncertainty. At the very best, there’s a significant, pitched scientific disagreement about industry and regulators’ allegations.”

McKinnon also refuted Energy Fuels’ claim that Wii’i Gdwiisa or “clenched fist mountain” (the Havasupai name for Red Butte) will not be in danger by their operations.

“We are very concerned about the long-term impacts where the mine workings continue to flood,” McKinnon explained. “What happens to those 10 million gallons a year that continue to pour into the mine workings? Who is going to monitor that? Who is going to maintain it? What they’ve created here is a long-term, slow motion environmental disaster.”

“It is a fact that they pierced the Coconino aquifer,” McKinnon said, pointing to his firsthand experience. “I’ve literally walked in the forest and been sprayed!”

Dr. Fred D. Tillman of the United States Geological Survey’s (USGS) Arizona Water Science Center — who in 2021 co-authored an assessment of uranium in groundwater for the Grand Canyon region for the journal Nature — told Salon by email that he leads the water resources investigations in the area, with research involving more than 1,000 water samples analyzed throughout the region.

“To date, we have not found widespread contamination in either groundwater or streams that can be definitively related to uranium mining in the area,” Tillman said. Although there are somewhat elevated uranium and arsenic concentrations in water, he said these were found to usually originate from natural sources (although he added studies near the abandoned Orphan Mine are ongoing). “Having said that, groundwater moves extremely slowly in many parts of the Grand Canyon area, so if there were water contamination from uranium mining activities, it may not have shown up yet at the spring and well sites that we are able to monitor.”

Tillman later concluded, “USGS will continue our investigations in the region to provide information towards answering questions about the effects from uranium mining activities on water resources. In particular, we will continue to collect groundwater samples to provide the Havasupai people at Supai Village information on the status and change in groundwater quality in the area.”

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