GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK – Deep within the canyon, a few miles removed from the mule trains of the popular Bright Angel Trail, Horn Creek creates a ribbon of green vegetation here before plunging toward the Colorado River.
But the handful of people allowed to camp in this splendid isolation receive a warning with their permits: Don’t drink the water when Horn Creek is flowing. It’s radioactive.
The reason, experts and advocates say, lies high above at the canyon’s edge, where the Orphan Mine produced 4.3 million pounds of some of the purest uranium ever found in the United States before closing in 1969.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has declared the mine a Superfund site, but the National Park Service, which now controls the property, is still investigating the extent of the contamination, whether it’s linked to unsafe levels of radioactivity in Horn Creek and, if so, whether any of the several companies that owned the mine at different times can be held accountable.
Today, historically high uranium prices and the promise of nuclear power to curb America’s reliance on fossil fuels have sparked new interest in mining near the Grand Canyon. About 3,500 claims to mine uranium are pending on U.S. Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service land.
Those would be in addition to an operation Denison Mines Corp., a Canadian company based in Toronto, reopened in 2009 north of the canyon and at least two other mines – one north and one south of the canyon – that it plans to reopen.
Denison Mines and an organization representing the uranium-mining industry contend that today’s techniques are safe for the environment. But Roger Clark, a spokesman for the Grand Canyon Trust, an environmental advocacy group, said what’s happened to Horn Creek provides a reason to look with caution at the rush of uranium claims.
“It is a stellar example of why we can’t just trust the industry to say that they will not contaminate the groundwater,” he said.
In 2009, U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar put a two-year hold on exploration and new mineral claims near the Grand Canyon while officials studied the potential impact on water, air qualify, wildlife, vegetation, recreation and public health.
With the hold scheduled to end in July, Salazar has proposed banning new mines on 1 million acres south and north of the canyon for the next 20 years. It’s his preferred course of action among four that were up for public comment through early May; the others would withdraw 600,000 acres, 300,000 acres or no land at all.
Whatever Salazar decides, it wouldn’t mean an end to uranium mining near the canyon. Denison owns several long-established claims in the area, and under a 139-year-old federal law those can’t be taken away when land is removed from mining.
Michael Amundson, a Northern Arizona University history professor who specializes in the Atomic Age and its impact on the West, said many Americans are unaware of lingering contamination from the last uranium boom. Officials should weigh long-term effects when considering the short-term benefits that would come from increasing mining near the Grand Canyon, he said.
“This is a symbol of America,” Amundson said. “If you screw up the Grand Canyon, there is not another place to turn.”
As with much of northern Arizona, the Grand Canyon and its surroundings are home to some exceptionally high-grade uranium deposits. Half of the known deposits in the region are in the area Salazar has proposed for withdrawal.
The uranium oxide, found in straw-shaped underground formations called breccia pipes, sparked a rush of mining after World War II as the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission launched a massive hunt to boost production of nuclear bombs and reactors.
“The sentiment at the time was we need to do this for America,” Amundson said.
Federal subsidies and bonuses made uranium mining profitable and led to the discovery of uranium in the Orphan Mine, a former copper-mining operation, in 1951. A lode about 1,000 feet below the Grand Canyon’s South Rim was mined from 1959 to 1969.
While eight mines operated near the Grand Canyon, there were more than 500 mines on the Navajo Nation, where many miners later died of radiation-related illnesses and some even built homes out of uranium tailings.
The Navajo Nation outlawed uranium mining on the reservation in 2005.
Mining increased and decreased over the decades based on prices and government demand. All uranium mining in northern Arizona ceased in the late 1980s as prices fell.
Renewed interest in uranium mining has companies once again looking around the Grand Canyon. The areas proposed for withdrawal from mining are estimated to have 326 million pounds of uranium oxide.
Those deposits could power 16 nuclear generators for 40 years, which is the equivalent of 11.6 billion barrels of oil, according to the American Clean Energy Resources Trust, a uranium mining advocacy group.
For the U.S., with 104 existing nuclear reactors and 23 planned reactors awaiting approval from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the uranium could help eliminate dependence on foreign sources of energy, said Pam Hill, a spokeswoman for the group.
“It is important to the public that we have a known, stable, safe supply of energy,” she said. “These northern Arizona deposits are very important to energy security.”
In 2009, Denison Mines reopened the Arizona 1 Mine, which it it acquired though a merger, on BLM land about 10 miles north of Grand Canyon National Park and about 35 miles southwest of Fredonia. It plans to reopen the Pinenut Mine nearby and the Canyon Mine on Forest Service land south of the canyon. It also plans to develop a new mine that would be in the area slated for closure to mining.
Ron Hochstein, CEO of Denison Mines, said the U.S. is vulnerable because it imports most of its uranium.
“We are just as reliant on foreign sources of uranium as we are for foreign sources of oil,” he said.
Of the 1 million pounds of uranium Denison Mines expects to remove from Arizona 1 Mine, Hochstein said 350,000 pounds will be shipped to South Korea and the remainder will be used in the U.S.
“What is going to make America today is exploiting these resources that are there by nature, but doing it in an environmentally sound manner,” he said.
Clark, with the Grand Canyon Trust, said whatever benefits would come from mining in the area wouldn’t be worth the risk.
“The history of uranium mining, even up until two decades ago, was a lot of promises on the front end,” he said. “But the performances have been that they have left sites contaminated.”
From a small airplane high above the Kaibab National Forest, the snowy tops of the San Francisco Peaks dominate the horizon to the southeast while to the north the Grand Canyon appears as just a sliver. The most notable feature below appears at first as a bald spot among the ponderosa pines. Then a large metal rig comes into focus, along with a reservoir built to contain water pumped from a mine.
This is the area cleared for the Canyon Mine, which removed uranium from deep underground during the 1980s. Denison Mines has obtained state and federal permits and approvals to reopen the mine, and EcoFlight, an environmental advocacy group, is giving elders of the Havasupai Tribe, whose reservation is in the Grand Canyon and who consider this area sacred, an aerial view.
The pilot, Bruce Gordon of Aspen, Colo., says later that viewing mine sites from the air provides a clearer picture of their impact on the environment. But what concerns opponents of uranium mining near the canyon most about this site is the potential for environmental damage deep in the earth, where water meets the rock containing uranium.
“If you look at these places in the air you can see how close they are to the rim,” he says.
A 2010 U.S. Geological Survey study found that five wells and 15 springs in the Grand Canyon area exceeded EPA safe drinking water standards for uranium. A well located near the Canyon Mine was found to have the highest uranium concentration of all.
Working with graduate students in the 1990s, David Kreamer, a professor of hydrology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, was the first to document high uranium concentrations in Horn Creek within the canyon. Later research on the effects of uranium mining on groundwater and the watershed found levels exceeding EPA limits in Salt Creek, just to the west of Horn Creek, and in some springs along lower Little Colorado River, flows into the canyon, according the U.S. Geological Survey study.
Studies by Kreamer and others have found that uranium ore exposed to air by mining oxidizes and can become highly soluble in water traveling through the expansive groundwater system around the Grand Canyon.
“There is supportive evidence right now that the pollution from the Orphan Mine is contaminating springs in the Grand Canyon,” Kreamer said. “No evidence found has been inconsistent with this theory yet.”
Kreamer said any future uranium mining near the canyon would have to be closely monitored. Because groundwater travels slowly, sometimes taking years and even centuries to come out in springs, contamination may not be apparent until much later.
“Water from canyon springs is half a century old at least, creating a time-bomb effect,” he said.
Hochstein, Denison Mines’ CEO, said it’s a stretch to say that water contamination is caused by mines because uranium has always been a part of the area’s geology.
“Uranium is prolific throughout the earth’s crust, and the amount of uranium in those streams is naturally occurring,” he said
Kreamer also is concerned about the effect of mines on water quantity.
In addition to the water used in mining, drilling for uranium mines typically takes place at the same level where smaller perched aquifers are located, and piercing one could slowly drain water from springs located high on the canyon’s walls, he said. That happened in the 1980s during exploratory drilling around the Canyon Mine, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, costing an estimated 1.3 million gallons per year to area springs.
“The indication right now is that we are wrong to assume that uranium mining will have minimal impacts on our seeps and springs,” he said.
Taylor McKinnon wears a mask over his mouth and nose as he looks out from the edge of Kanab Canyon, pointing to Kanab Creek flowing from Utah toward the Grand Canyon. Behind him, surrounded by a fence topped with barbed wire, lies a pile of uranium waste, two stories high and 350 feet long, created before the Kanab North Mine ceased operations in the 1980s due to sagging prices.
Since then, the wind has blown radioactive dust off the mine site and into the soil above Kanab Creek, the Grand Canyon’s largest northern tributary. Denison Mines acquired this mine in a 2006 merger and hasn’t finalized its plans for the site.
“In reality, this is what actually happens, that the mines can be forced to go into standby by market fluctuations,” said McKinnon, public lands campaigns director for the Center for Biological Diversity, a Tucson-based environmental group. “And then it will be blowing uranium dust like we are experiencing right now.”
The uranium concentrations found here are 10 times higher than the background concentrations that naturally occur in the soil, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
In the draft environmental impact statement about the withdrawal proposed by Salazar, the BLM estimates that the average life of a uranium mine is seven years from the start of drilling to the point at which the mine is filled in and the site is returned to its natural state. But under BLM rules companies are allowed to classify mines as on standby, also referred to as care-and-maintenance mode, indefinitely with the understanding that they could eventually be reopened.
“There are no hard requirements,” McKinnon said. “Everything is discretionary, and this is the result of what you get with non-binding requirements on uranium mines: You get a pollution problem.”
The Canyon Mine south of the canyon and the Pinenut Mine, which is several miles away from Kanab North Mine, also are considered on standby, though Denison Mines has said it intends to reopen those.
Scott Florence, district manager of the BLM’s Arizona Strip District, said his agency holds a bond that would pay for reclaiming those sites if Denison Mines fails to for any reason.
Hochstein, Denison Mines’ CEO, said his company is looking at closing the Kanab North Mine and returning it to its natural state, though he said there’s no timetable for doing that.
As for the possibility that uranium prices will drop and cause Denison Mines to deactivate mines, he said the company has abided and will continue to abide by rules and laws.
“It’s not like regulatory requirements stop when the mine shuts down,” Hochstein said.
Regardless of the proposed withdrawal, Denison Mines is able to move forward with its operations because of mineral rights grandfathered under the General Mining Law of 1872, which covers mining claims on public lands and prevents the government from removing mineral rights without due process.
Sandy Bahr, a spokeswoman for the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon chapter, said that law is undercutting the plan to withdraw land around the Grand Canyon from mining. She said Congress needs to revisit the issue.
“It was passed to promote development of the West, and we are way past that now, and it needs to be changed,” she said.
Meanwhile, the Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, Grand Canyon Trust and Havasupai and Kaibab-Paiute tribes are challenging the BLM’s decision to allow Denison Mines to reopen the Arizona 1 Mine without conducting a new environmental assessment. That mine is operating under an assessment from the 1980s.
The lawsuit against the Interior Department and Denison Mines also contends that federal officials failed to follow mining laws by conducting exams to validate the company’s claims and by not requiring the company to provide a new plan of operations.
Last year, a federal judge denied a motion for a preliminary injunction that would halt operations at the Arizona 1 Mine. The plaintiffs have appealed that decision to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Hochstein said he is sick of environmental groups testing the need for a new environmental review.
“We don’t believe they have raised anything of significance that would require an updated environmental process,” he said.
Hochstein said Denison Mines has followed proper procedures to receive air quality and aquifer-protection permits from the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality for the Arizona 1 Mine and the two mines it intends to reopen.
“Arizona has different permitting regimes,” he said. “We would follow what the rules and regulations are.”
Henry Darwin, ADEQ’s director, said Arizona has added a safeguard by requiring companies seeking permits to mine to also apply for aquifer-protection permits. Those permits require companies to monitor the amount of water they use, measure how porous the bedrock is, periodically sample water pumped out of mines and put up bonds to cover the cleanup of any contamination.
“We have done a lot as a state for developing this program so we don’t have the same issues that we experienced in the past,” he said.
The public comment period on the Interior Department’s plan to withdraw land around the canyon from mining ended May 3. The temporary ban is scheduled to expire July 21, which in theory would open the 1 million acres to exploratory drilling.
Rody Cox, a BLM geologist based on the Arizona Strip, said the agency won’t finish a final environmental impact statement required for the Interior Department to choose an alternative by that date. He said he isn’t sure what will happen when the temporary ban expires.
Although Denison Mines will be able to mine regardless of the outcome, Hochstein still hopes that the decision is no withdrawal.
“There has been no impact from mining near the Grand Canyon,” he said.
Horchstein, Denison Mines’ CEO, said expects the Pinenut Mine to resume producing ore next year but isn’t certain when Canyon Mine will resume operations.
The company also has mineral rights to a uranium deposit located near its other operations on the Arizona Strip and is currently seeking permits for what it calls the EZ Mine. However, Hochstein said it remains unclear whether the proposed withdrawal would affect those plans.
Meanwhile, Sandy Bahr of the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter said opponents plan to do everything they can to fight existing and proposed uranium mines near the Grand Canyon by challenging the way the federal government handles permits as well as its environmental review process.
“From cradle to grave there are many pollution issues with nuclear power,” Bahr said. “It starts with the uranium mining.”