Concerns raised over proposed uranium mines, ore transport
By Kathy Helms
WINDOW ROCK – In the late 1990’s there was a major outcry in Western Navajo Agency from Dine drivers who traveled U.S. Highway 89 through the Navajo Nation due to an excessive number of motor vehicle crashes and fatalities. They came up with a bumper sticker in protest: “Pray for me and mine. We drive Highway 89.”
While the number of fatalities on Arizona roads have decreased somewhat in the last couple years, a number of Arizonans are concerned about the 48 truckloads of uranium ore per day that will find its way onto U.S. 89 and other routes across the reservation to White Mesa Mill near Blanding, Utah, if Arizona Department of Environmental Quality issues permits for three underground uranium mines near the Grand Canyon. Arizona 1 is already operating.
ADEQ plans to issue air and water permits to Denison Mines (USA) Corp. for its Canyon Mine southeast of Tusayan in Coconino County, and the EZ Mine and Pinenut Mine near Fredonia.
The deadline for comments was Friday, but former Navajo Nation Council Delegate Thomas Walker Jr., said that’s not the end of it. Walker had attempted to get a position statement opposing the transportation of uranium ore through Navajo passed by Council during its Jan. 7 session, but Council lost quorum before it could be presented.
“I’m going to encourage the 22nd Council to prioritize that opposition position resolution,” he said. Two routes are proposed through Navajo, he said. The route from the south Grand Canyon mines would pass through Cameron, Tuba City, Kayenta, Dennehotso and Navajo chapters in Utah. From the north mines, ore would be transported to Kanab, Page, Shonto and Kayenta, and on to the mill north of Blanding.
“Clearly we must be taking a strong stance early in this whole process,” Walker said. “Young Jeff Tom back in 1999 tried to legislate a resolution that established the Navajo Nation as a nuclear-free zone.” A legal opinion from legislative counsel stated that while Council could approve a policy statement establishing such, it may not be able to exercise jurisdiction over the transport of nuclear products on roads with federal, state or county rights of way.
“The situation has arisen where the affected tribes have vested interest and very grave concerns over the health and safety of our people because of the uranium transportation proposal,” Walker said.
In addition to potential traffic hazards, a 2010 report by the National Parks Conservation Association found that uranium mining activities on lands adjacent to the park could result in environmental and watershed contamination. In 1984, a flash flood carried tons of high-grade uranium ore from six existing mines north of the park down Kanab Creek and into the park. While no studies have been done to determine whether there have been long-lasting effects from this event, the report states that it is indicative of how future uranium mining could lead to contamination of surface waters.
Grand Canyon Trust filed comments Friday along with the Center for Biological Diversity and Sierra Club, stating that they are “adamantly opposed” to opening the three mines, all of which are located within watersheds that drain directly into Grand Canyon National Park.
There are two main concerns, according to Roger Clark of Grand Canyon Trust. “One, there’s not any monitoring both of air and water that measures contamination of surface and groundwater or radon gas in the air or dust particles spreading from the mine. There’s voluntary reporting by the operator.”
The U.S. Geological Survey did a quick survey of some of the old mine sites last year, he said. “They found the Kanab North Mine, which hasn’t been mined out, has extensive radioactive dust and soil way outside the perimeter of the fenced area and dropping down into Kanab Creek. There’s no meaningful monitoring of the groundwater or the surface water or the air, so it’s really a joke to call it an aquifer protection permit or air quality permit because they don’t monitor it,” Clark said.
“More concerning is there’s no way to detect it when contamination occurs. As we’ve learned time and time again with groundwater on the Navajo rez and one mine inside Grand Canyon National Park, once groundwater is contaminated, there’s no turning back. There’s no effective way, no matter how much money you throw at it, to remediate that.”
A Coconino County supervisor expressed concern with language in the draft permit which specifies that haul trucks “shall be operated in such a way that ore cannot escape through any slits or openings in the bed of the truck,” and that loads must be covered with a tarpaulin.
This provision may prevent uranium ore from being spilled, but it does nothing to prevent fugitive dust from contaminating roadsides, he said, adding that USGS found elevated levels of uranium in soils near ore-hauling roads at the Pigeon and Hermit mines north of the Grand Canyon. He recommended the trucks, at minimum, be covered with a solid lid with sealed seams and that ADEQ monitor for contamination along haul routes.
The Forgotten People in the former Bennett Freeze area submitted comments stating that the mines are located within the 1-million-acre watershed of the Grand Canyon that the Obama administration has proposed as off-limits to mining. That proposal followed concerns by tribes, scientists, businesses, local governments and conservation groups that uranium mining around the Grand Canyon could harm wildlife, industrialize wildlands and deplete or contaminate aquifers that feed the canyon’s seeps and springs.
The Mine Safety and Health Administration has issued more than 60 citations since 2009 relating to operations at Denison’s Arizona 1 mine north of Grand Canyon and the company’s Pandora uranium mine in Utah, Forgotten People stated.
Please check out the link to the Comments Forgotten People submitted opposing uranium mining in the Grand Canyon watershed: