US: Uranium Exploration Near Grand Canyon

Publisher Name: 
The New York Times

With minimal public notice and no formal
environmental review, the Forest Service has approved a permit allowing
a British mining company to explore for uranium just outside Grand
Canyon National Park, less than three miles from a popular lookout over
the canyon's southern rim.

If the exploration finds rich
uranium deposits, it could lead to the first mines near the canyon
since the price of uranium ore plummeted nearly two decades ago. A
sharp increase in uranium prices over the past three years has led
individuals to stake thousands of mining claims in the Southwest,
including more than 1,000 in the Kaibab National Forest, near the Grand
Canyon.

To drill exploratory wells on the claims in the Kaibab
forest requires Forest Service approval. Vane Minerals, the British
company, received such approval for seven sites in December.

The
Forest Service granted the approvals without a full-dress environmental
assessment, ruling that the canyon could be "categorically excluded"
from such a review because exploration would last less than a year and
might not lead to mining activity.

On Tuesday, the Board of
Supervisors in Coconino County, Ariz., voted unanimously to try to
block any potential uranium mines. It asked that the federal government
withdraw large sections of land immediately north and south of the
national park from mineral leasing.

"We have a legacy, which isn't too good, from the uranium mining in the past," said Deb Hill, chairwoman of the Coconino board.

Knowledge of the cancers suffered by former uranium workers and their
families on a nearby Navajo reservation, worries about uranium-laden
trucks and trains on roads and concern about contamination of the
aquifers and streams in arid northern Arizona were also factors in the
vote, Ms. Hill said.

The Forest Service made its decision after
limited public notice to local officials, environmental groups and
tribal governments. There was no public hearing.

Bill Hedden,
the executive director of the Grand Canyon Trust, said the approvals
were the first indications that a new generation of uranium mines might
spring up on the Colorado Plateau near the canyon, an area peppered
with uranium-rich geological formations called breccia pipes.

Matthew
Idiens, the director of corporate development for Vane, said at least
seven mines had been located not far from the park in past decades,
yielding an average of 3.4 million pounds a mine. The exploratory
activity his company plans, Mr. Idiens added, "is somewhat limited -
taking in a truck, doing a bit of drilling, but that's it." The breccia
pipes, he said, "cover a very small area."

"You put a shaft next to them when you mine them," he said, "and you take the uranium out and put everything else back in."

"After
four or five years, you reclaim it, put it back the way it was, and no
one would ever know you were there," Mr. Idiens said. "We obviously
understand it's scenic and beautiful there, and we respect that
enormously."

Barbara McCurry, the Kaibab National Forest's
spokeswoman on this issue, said her agency had little choice but to
allow the drilling under the 1872 mining law that governs hard-rock
mining claims. "The exploratory drilling is pretty minimal," Ms.
McCurry said, adding, "Our obligation is to make sure that any impacts
are mitigated."

The Environmental Working Group in Washington has
been tracking the new wave of uranium mining claims sweeping across the
Four Corners region of the Southwest and is issuing a report on the
claims and their possible effects,

Dusty Horwitt, the author of
the report, said the Forest Service's actions confirmed that
House-approved amendments to the 1872 law on mining activity should be
approved by the Senate. Congress, Mr. Horwitt said, should give federal
land managers the right to balance the desires of mining companies with
other values like the protection of national parks and water supplies.

"If
uranium mining operations are about to start on the edge of the Grand
Canyon and federal officials say there's nothing we can do, the time is
now to reform the 1872 mining law," Mr. Horwitt said.

Mr. Hedden,
of the Grand Canyon Trust, pointed out that several Indian tribes in
the Four Corners area, including the Navajo, the Hopi and the
Havasupai, had voted to ban uranium mining on their land.

Ms.
McCurry, of Kaibab National Forest, pointed out that, if Vane found a
cluster of uranium deposits and sought a permit to mine, the decision
would require a full environmental analysis and an environmental impact
statement.

AMP Section Name:Natural Resources
  • 176 War Profiteers Site
  • 183 Environment
  • 195 Chemicals