MAC: Mines and Communities

Moratorium Extended at Grand Canyon

Published by MAC on 2011-06-28
Source: New York Times, Reuters, Arizona Daily Sun

Previous MAC coverage: The Great 1872 US Resources Giveaway

Uranium Mine Moratorium Extended at Grand Canyon

By Richard Perry

The New York Times

20 June 2011

The federal government on Monday extended for six months a moratorium on new uranium mining claims in a million-acre buffer zone around the Grand Canyon as it awaits the conclusions of a study of potential environmental harm to the region.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said that expanded uranium mining around the canyon could threaten water supplies, air quality, wildlife, desert vegetation and priceless scenery. Once lost, Mr. Salazar said, those assets can never be reclaimed.

But he said he was not yet ready to declare the area off limits to new mining claims for the next 20 years, as many local and state officials and environmental advocates have demanded. He said in a briefing at the Grand Canyon that a 20-year moratorium was his preferred solution but that more scientific study was needed.

The decision represents at least a partial victory for environmentalists, who have grown increasingly uneasy in recent months as the Obama administration has, in their view, seemed to retreat on several environmental and regulatory fronts. They were particularly unhappy with Mr. Salazar's decision last month, under pressure from Republicans in Congress and energy interests, to reverse his own policy that would have set aside millions of federally owned acres as wilderness protected forever from energy exploration.

Mr. Salazar said that the relatively small number of existing mining claims around the canyon would be honored but that he was leaning strongly against allowing any new activity. He said he would make a final decision after an environmental impact statement was completed by the government this year.

"This alternative, if ultimately selected," he said, "would ensure that all public lands adjacent to Grand Canyon National Park are protected from new hard-rock mining claims, all of which are in the watershed of the Grand Canyon."

In 2009, Mr. Salazar placed a two-year moratorium on new uranium mining claims on a million acres of public lands surrounding the Grand Canyon, overturning a Bush administration policy that encouraged thousands of new claims when the price of uranium soared in 2006 and 2007. Many of the stakeholders are foreign interests, including Rosatom, Russia's state atomic energy corporation, and South Korea's state-owned utility.

That moratorium was to expire in July but will now be extended until the end of December.

The impact of Monday's decision on global uranium supplies and prices was expected to be modest. The United States is not a major supplier of uranium ore, and demand has been declining since the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant disaster in Japan, as countries including Germany, Italy and Switzerland move to cancel planned nuclear plants and reduce their dependence on nuclear power.

According to the United States Geological Survey, northern Arizona contains enough uranium to meet the American nuclear industry's needs for only about six years, and the Grand Canyon region holds just a fraction of that.

Representative Raúl M. Grijalva, Democrat of Arizona, has long been an opponent of uranium mining on public and tribal lands around the Grand Canyon. He said in an interview on Monday that Republicans might try to undo the decision to protect the land but that they would be, in his words, crawling uphill.

"It's typical of their heavy-handed approach, and they're going to lose on this one," Mr. Grijalva said. "The canyon is a huge economic engine for tourism, a huge conservation issue and a huge issue of water supply for California and Las Vegas and the cities of Arizona."

Representative Cynthia M. Lummis, Republican of Wyoming, denounced the decision, however, saying that the Obama administration's environmental policies were costing jobs and forcing the nation to look overseas for supplies of oil and critical minerals.

"It's a legacy of unemployment and high energy costs," Ms. Lummis said in a statement. "We will not move this country forward until the war on Western jobs comes to an end."

Moratorium won't control uranium mining


Arizona Daily Sun

22 June 2011

We hate to sound like a broken record, but a moratorium on new uranium mining claims in the Grand Canyon watershed doesn't resolve two more important issues:

As we've noted in this space before, the 1872 mining law survives only because of mining industry pressure on key senators to maintain the status quo. How else to explain the survival of a law that allows uranium and gold prospectors to file an unlimited number of claims to free minerals on lands they don't own in watersheds that modern science now tells us can't handle them?

Yet Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, in announcing Monday a 6-month extension of a uranium claims moratorium near the Grand Canyon, failed to mention the 1872 mining law, much less commit to its reform. But the law is the reason he has had to seek a blanket, all-or-nothing withdrawal -- it does not permit federal and state agencies to put limits on the number of mines in a region, even if they exceed a watershed's carrying capacity. All they can do is seek to control the environmental impacts of each mine.

Coming Up Short

And even then, Arizona comes up short. Gov. Jan Brewer condemned the Salazar announcement as ignoring assurances by the industry that uranium can be mined safely and securely. But she did not commit to upgrading the oversight at the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, which has fallen short in regulating just the single mine now operating on the North Rim.

As Cyndy Cole reported earlier this year, Denison Mines opened its Arizona 1 uranium mine in 2009, yet the first inspection came in September 2010. ADEQ inspected at the ground level only, not traveling into the mine, which reaches more than 1,252 feet below. Nevertheless, the inspection yielded what ADEQ deemed four "major" violations.

-- There were no pumps in the mine to eliminate any water there.

-- A test measuring the permeability of the rock in the mine hadn't been done.

-- A pipe was sticking through a lined pond that is intended to prevent groundwater contamination from ore or water pumped out of the mine.

-- Plans for the mine didn't match what inspectors found when they visited.

Federal Violations, Too

In the same month that ADEQ inspectors arrived, federal inspectors concerned with worker safety cited Denison and contractors with air quality violations, failure to properly label power switches, equipment safety violations and a lack of firefighting equipment inspections. In all, the Mine Safety and Health Administration found 38 possible mine safety violations at the Arizona 1 Mine in 2010, many of which Denison is contesting.

That kind of record doesn't inspire confidence in either the mine operators or the regulators. Yet the preliminary Environmental Impact Statement noted that an estimated 11 mines in the proposed 1 million-acre withdrawal zone are due to open in the near future, with or without the moratorium. That's because the mines are either grandfathered or are on state or private inholdings -- the moratorium covers only federal lands.

With that kind of prospectus combined with the past violations, we would think Gov. Brewer would have boosted ADEQ's budget, especially if she is going to lobby for no moratorium at all -- in that case, the draft EIS projects more than 30 mines would open. But the ADEQ budget was cut, along with nearly every other department except Corrections.

A Shameful Legacy

Looming over the debate is the travesty that was uranium mining during the Cold War era. Few precautions were taken to protect the people or the land from the devastating effects of airborne radiation, radioactive dust, contaminated soil, and downstream pollution. It is one of this country's most shameful public health and environmental legacies, and it should never be allowed to happen again.

To be fair, though, modern mining techniques in no way resemble those of 40 years ago. (Modern mines, for example, are underground and use no injected water in the extraction process.) The draft EIS rates the chances of a major accident at a mine during its typical 7-year lifespan at 13 percent -- a risk it considers "moderate." And even a major flood that pushes exposed ore into a deep or perched aquifer, if contained to one mine, would pose little risk to the Colorado River -- the water volume is so great that any radioactivity would be diluted to a level that would not be detectable.

But whether tourists hearing about a mine accident would be concerned enough to cancel a trip to the Grand Canyon is unknown. And given the greater automation of the new generation of uranium mines and the fact that the ore would be refined in Utah, the number of new jobs produced from even 30 mines might not be worth the considerable risk to the region's reputation, if not its water table.

Sooner, not later

We remain convinced, however, that a comprehensive overhaul of federal mining laws should be part and parcel of any moratorium around the Grand Canyon. And the governor and lawmakers need to get serious about uranium mine regulation -- or pass it off to a more specialized agency, such as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Given world prices, more uranium mining is coming to the Grand Canyon region sooner rather than later, and it's time federal and state officials took it seriously.

Denison says Grand Canyon mining ban "frustrating"


21 June 2011

TORONTO - The head of Denison Mines said on Tuesday he is frustrated by the U.S. government's move to extend a ban on mining on 1 million acres of federal lands near the Grand Canyon, though the impact of the ban on his company remains unclear.

In an interview with Reuters, Chief Executive Ron Hochstein said that while three of its Arizona Strip projects are unaffected, Denison is still looking into whether the six-month extension announced on Monday will have an impact on the development of its EZ Complex uranium deposits in Arizona.

"If for some reason this withdrawal impacts our development of EZ, that is something that will definitely impact our production, probably within the next 5-10 years," Hochstein said.

Denison produces some 200,000 to 300,000 pounds of uranium a year from its Arizona 1 mine in the Grand Canyon region.

Construction is underway at the nearby Pinenut deposit, with first ore expected in 2012. A third project, Canyon, has a historical plan of operations and will not be affected by the ban, Hochstein said.

In 2009, the U.S. Department of the Interior declared a two-year time-out on new mining claims in the area around the Grand Canyon as it studied its options.

Its decision to extend that ban could lead to a long-term moratorium on mining in the area and was prompted by concerns that uranium mining near the Grand Canyon could hurt water quality and tourism.

Hochstein argued that an environmental study conducted by the Interior Department had shown no significant current or future negative impact from mining in the area.

"What is extremely frustrating for me is they've actually gone through the process and still say 'no'," he said. "It's purely pandering to the environmental and popular vote."

Hochstein noted that because the mines are underground, the surface impact during production is minimal.

"The total area is less than 20 acres. It's very small," he said. "A Wal-Mart parking lot is about two or three times the size of what our total mining disturbance is."

Shares of Denison dropped more than 7 percent on Monday on the Toronto Stock Exchange after the ban extension was announced. Shares closed up 4.22 percent at C$1.73 on Tuesday.

The company owns uranium projects in the United States, Canada, Mongolia and Zambia.

($1=$0.97 Canadian) (Reporting by Julie Gordon; editing by Peter Galloway)

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