The Grand Canyon’s Uranium Question
As The Battle Continues Over Uranium Mining At The Grand Canyon, Most Arizonans Are Unaware That A Big Decision Is Looming
The Grand Canyon from Mather Point.
By John Guzzon
Modern Times Magazine .com
May 4, 2011 — The Grand Canyon is synonymous with Arizona. One is rarely thought of without the other.
Whether one realizes it or not, the Grand Canyon impacts virtually every Arizonan every day. Millions visit the canyon every year to take in the natural beauty and to commune with the nature. But more importantly, much of the water that arrives in the Phoenix metropolitan area at one time flowed through the Grand Canyon thanks to the Colorado River.
But how many people know the Grand Canyon and the surrounding area is one of the best places in the United States to mine uranium?
That’s right, the nuclear fuel for reactors and bombs is actually fairly plentiful around the state’s most important landmark. A Navajo man discovered uranium in Monument Valley in 1942 on the Navajo Indian Reservation and the first mine there opened in 1948. Mining stopped in the Monument Valley district in 1969, after producing 8.7 million pounds of uranium oxide, more than has been produced anywhere else in Arizona. Mining continued at spots within the Navajo Reservation, however.
But the problem was the stuff is radioactive. So, in 2005 the Navajo Nation declared a moratorium on uranium mining on the reservation, for environmental and health reasons.
The area around the Grand Canyon was determined to have substantial amounts of uranium when the mineral was discovered in the Orphan copper mine near the south rim of the Grand Canyon in 1950. The mine is on private property held since 1906, and is today completely surrounded by Grand Canyon National Park. The 1950 discovery led to finds of uranium in other collapsed breccia pipes in areas around the Grand Canyon. There are even some exposed uranium shafts along the canyon walls.
The breccia pipes were formed when overlying rocks collapsed into caverns formed in the Mississippian Redwall Limestone. The pipes are typically 300 feet in diameter, and may extend up to 3,000 feet vertically.
The Arizona Strip Wilderness Act of 1984, recognized the uranium potential of over one half million acres of Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service lands in northern Arizona by releasing them from wilderness classification so they could be explored and mined. But with prices low at the time, not much happened.
But as prices of uranium on the rose and demand increased, many firms began to explore 1.1 million acres of federal land surrounding the canyon that could be exploited for the uranium located in these breccia pipes. A recent report by the Pew Environment Group said mining claims at the Grand Canyon increased 2,000 percent since 2004.
In March 2008, Rep. Raul Grijalva with support from the Center for Biological Diversity, the Grand Canyon Trust and the Sierra Club, introduced the "Grand Canyon Watersheds Protection Act," to permanently withdraw 1.1 million acres in the Tusayan Ranger District and federal lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management in the vicinity of Kanab Creek and in House Rock Valley from mining laws. The bill was reintroduced in the House as HR 644 in 2009.
In 2009 and with the coming of the Obama administration, newly appointed Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar, issued a Notice of Proposed Withdrawal for the 1.1 million acres. The last day for public comments is today, May 4.
Denison Mines is not waiting to see what will happen on the federal level. They are working with the state of Arizona to be ready to start in anticipation of the federal government lifting the ban. In March of 2011, the State of Arizona issued air and water permits to Denison which would allow uranium mining to resume at three previously abandoned locations north of the Grand Canyon.
The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality approved permits for air and aquifer pollution to Denison Mines in March.
“Arizona regulators are throwing caution to the winds by risking even more radiological contamination of the soil and water of the Grand Canyon region,” said Taylor McKinnon of the Center for Biological Diversity, which has fought to protect air and water around the Grand Canyon. “The Department of Environmental Quality has a statutory duty to protect the environment and should have denied the permits.”
The Center For Biological Diversity has appealed the decision.
The American Center For Renewable Energy Trust is the prime defender of uranium mining near the Grand Canyon. This group claims that environmental groups are fear-mongering and that modern uranium mining is safe.
Now it is up to the Department of the Interior. It is unknown how long they will take to review public comments and make a decision but the Fukushima Daiichi disaster certainly did not help those wanting to profit from the mining.
With all the literally and figuratively explosive nature of the Grand Canyon region, there is little wonder that the rich nuclear bounty of the Grand Canyon is little known.
But, the next time you drive someone from out of town to see the Grand Canyon, take in the beauty, but remember that even out where the eagle and bighorn roam, energy and money are very, very important.
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