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For Immediate Release, March 10, 2011

Contact:  Taylor McKinnon, Center for Biological Diversity, (928) 310-6713
Alicyn Gitlin, Sierra Club, (520) 491-9528
Roger Clark, Grand Canyon Trust, (928) 774-7488

Arizona Regulators Risk Damage to Water, Air Near Grand Canyon With Uranium Mine Permits

GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK, Ariz.— Ignoring widespread public opposition, the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality today issued three air- and one aquifer-pollution permits for three uranium mines located on public lands within Grand Canyon National Park’s immediate watershed. Two of the mines, EZ and Pinenut, are located north of Grand Canyon; the Canyon mine is located south of Grand Canyon. All three must undergo federal approval prior to opening.

“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. Now it will face appeal.”

A U.S. Geological Survey report issued in 2010 found “elevated radioactivity is evident at all sites” previously mined or explored for uranium on public lands north of Grand Canyon. The report also found that “fifteen springs and five wells in the region contain concentrations of dissolved uranium that exceed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency maximum contaminant level for drinking water and are related to mining processes.” 

In issuing the permits, the state refused to require monitoring for fine particulate matter uranium dust, which can enter the bloodstream through inhalation; alpha radiation can then impact cells and DNA, causing cancer and genetic defects. Fine particulate dust has been linked to several forms of toxicity in humans.

The aquifer pollution permit lacks aquifer water-quality monitoring down-gradient of the mine. It also lacks a remediation plan or bonding for such a plan in case aquifer contamination occurs. The permit issued is a “general” permit — the kind used for gas stations and other common facilities. Under the Napolitano administration, Arizona environmental regulators required a more stringent “individual” permit for the Canyon uranium mine.

“Given the potential threat to the groundwater and ultimately the seeps and springs of Grand Canyon, it is outrageous that the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality is not requiring the most stringent protections and is moving forward with permitting this mine under a permit that is supposed to be for activities that pose little threat to the aquifer,” said Alicyn Gitlin with the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter.

Deep aquifers have already been contaminated by uranium mining around Grand Canyon. Officials are still unsure how to clean up uranium pollution leaching into two Grand Canyon National Park creeks from the closed Orphan Mine on the south rim.

“State regulators in Arizona can’t guarantee that mining won’t contaminate regional aquifers. If that happens it would be impossible to clean up, and the damage would be permanent,” said McKinnon. “The state of Arizona is playing a foolish game of Russian roulette with a precious and irreplaceable resource.”

Today’s permits were issued as the U.S. Department of the Interior conducts public meetings on its proposal to protect 1 million acres of public land around Grand Canyon National Park from new mining claims and the development of existing claims lacking valid existing rights. All three mines permitted today occur within the million-acre area; none of the mining claims in the area have valid rights.

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