For Immediate Release, June 24, 2021
Allison Melton, Center for Biological Diversity, (970) 309-2008, email@example.com
Arizona to Permit Grand Canyon Uranium Mine Despite Ongoing Flooding, Water Contamination
Mine Threatens to Deplete, Pollute National Park’s Aquifers, Springs
GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK, Ariz.— The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality proposed an aquifer-protection permit Wednesday for a uranium mine near Grand Canyon National Park, with a history of flooding. The mine flooding threatens to deplete shallow aquifers and contaminated water is putting regional aquifers and the springs they feed at risk.
Conservation groups are calling on Arizona officials to close the Pinyon Plain mine, formerly known as Canyon Mine.
“It’s inexcusable for Arizona regulators to gamble with the waters feeding the Grand Canyon’s precious springs,” said Allison Melton, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The dangerous problems of perpetual flooding and pollution will only worsen if uranium is mined. The department should stop catering to a deadly industry and close the mine before a bad situation gets worse.”
In 2019 the groups sent a letter to the department urging it to limit Energy Fuels’ aquifer protection permit to mine closure, post-closure maintenance and full bonding, and to immediately plug groundwater flowing into the mine, which the state has refused to do.
“Groundwater contamination is a problem that will continue long after the mine’s operator closes up shop, ceases its current pumping operations, and the mine has been technically closed and cleaned up,” said Amber Reimondo, energy director for the Grand Canyon Trust. “The best course of action at this point is not to make the problem any worse by mining and exposing more mineralized deposits to oxygen and water. Immediate closure, cleanup and installation of a long-term groundwater monitoring system is necessary to protect the Grand Canyon region’s water from this ill-placed mine.”
In late 2016 mine-shaft drilling pierced shallow aquifers, causing water pumped from the mine to spike from 151,000 gallons in 2015 to 1.4 million gallons in 2016. Every year since, inflow has ranged from 8.8 million gallons in 2017 to 10.76 million gallons in 2019. Since 2016 dissolved uranium in that water has consistently exceeded federal toxicity limits by more than 300% and arsenic levels by more than 2,800%.
“The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality’s responsibility is to protect our precious groundwater from toxic pollution such as uranium — that is the whole reason this aquifer protection permit program exists,” said Sandy Bahr, chapter director for Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon (Arizona) Chapter. “To correct its previous errors to allow the mine to go forward with a less stringent general permit, the agency must both require a stronger individual permit and one that addresses closure of the mine. To do otherwise is to further risk this important aquifer, as well as the waters of Grand Canyon and Havasupai.”
In 2017 miners began spraying uranium-contaminated water into the Kaibab National Forest because the water exceeded the facility’s wastewater-storage capacity. They have also sprayed the water on the ground for dust control and allowed birds and other wildlife to drink from, bathe and forage in the polluted onsite storage pond.
“Pristine springs and seeps of Grand Canyon are the life support systems in this ecologically/culturally diverse and extraordinary landscape,” said Kelly Burke, executive director of Wild Arizona. “With ongoing extreme drought conditions stressing wildlife, habitats, and the Havasupai people to the limits of climate resilience, it is unconscionable and reckless to literally permit the contamination and depletion of these life-giving waters to persist.”
The department will evaluate the draft permit following a 45-day public comment period. It could then deny, modify or grant the permit.
“The state’s Department of Environmental Quality should act to protect this iconic park and the water supply of the Havasupai people by denying this permit and immediately closing down the mine,” said Kevin Dahl, Arizona senior program manager for National Parks Conservation Association. “Speculative uranium mining at this location is a horrible use of public land.”
The flooding disproves a central premise of the U.S. Forest Service’s 1986 environmental impact statement approving the mine, which said that the “low potential for encountering groundwater in the mine effectively eliminates the possibility of contaminating the Redwall-Muav aquifer.”
In 2012 the Forest Service refused to update that analysis, which the state has since relied on, stating that “very little has changed since the 1986 (analysis).”
As early as 1986, some state officials warned that mining could pierce and drain shallow aquifers into the mine and contaminate the regional groundwater that feeds seeps and springs in the Grand Canyon. Other hydrologists have since echoed that warning, pointing to more recent science suggesting that uranium mines could contaminate and deplete aquifers connected to Grand Canyon springs.
Research from U.S. Geological Survey scientists, published in 2020, “suggests a hydrologic connection in the area of Canyon Mine” between the Coconino aquifer, which is flooding into the mine, and the deeper Redwall-Muav aquifer, which is the source of the largest springs in Grand Canyon and Havasu Springs on the Havasupai Tribe’s land, and that, “contaminants, either from land-surface or subsurface sources, are likely to be transported into the deep aquifer.” Water in a Coconino aquifer observation well at Canyon Mine is chemically similar to several Grand Canyon springs, as is water from a well drilled into the deeper Redwall-Muav aquifer.
Mining operations have sucked tens of millions of gallons from shallow aquifers, but neither the state nor the Forest Service knows whether these aquifers connect to Grand Canyon springs.
In 2020 the mine’s owners changed the name of the mine from Canyon to Pinyon Plain, obscuring its association with Grand Canyon. The mine is just seven miles from the boundary of Grand Canyon National Park
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