Without a Paddle:
U.S. Law Powerless to Protect Colorado River From Mining
Record prices for uranium, gold and other metals are sparking a surge in mining claims that threaten the Colorado River, a source of drinking water for 25 million Americans and the lifeblood of Western agriculture.
An Environmental Working Group investigation found that claims within 10 miles of the Colorado more than doubled in 5 years. But the nation's antiquated mining law leaves federal officials virtually powerless to protect the West's iconic river from the contaminated runoff, mountains of waste and ravaged landscapes hardrock mining leaves behind.
Hardrock mining has been the nation's leading source of toxic polllution for nine years straight, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Across the West the toll on the region's limited water resources has been severe.
EPA says 40 percent of western watersheds have been degraded by mining operations. Recently, both the governor of Arizona and the chief of Metropolitan Water District of Southern California wrote to the Interior Department with concerns about the threat uranium mining poses to the drinking water of people in Phoenix, greater Los Angeles, San Diego and other cities.
Mining claims within 10 miles of the Colorado, which winds through 5 states on its 1,450-mile course from the Rocky Mountains to the Gulf of California in northwestern Mexico, increased from 2,568 in January 2003 to 5,545 in January 2008, according to Bureau of Land Management (BLM) records. (EWG 2008) In that period, mining claims within 5 miles of the river nearly tripled, from 395 to 1,195.
BLM doesn't identify which of the claims are for uranium mines. But EWG's investigation identified 4 of the 10 largest claimholders within 10 miles of the river as uranium interests, with the rest apparently looking for gold. An earlier EWG investigation found more than 1,000 new claims - most, if not all, for uranium - within 5 miles of the Grand Canyon, which carries the Colorado through Arizona toward Las Vegas and Lake Mead (EWG 2008).
Claimholders within 10 miles of the Colorado River
||Number of claims|
within 10 miles
of the Colorado River
|1||Glamis Imperial Corp||Vancouver, BC||611|
|2||Energy Fuels Resources Corp||Vancouver, BC||346|
|3||Kee Nez Resources Llc||Price, UT||308|
|4||Augustus Ventures LLC||Nederland, CO||271|
|5||Clyde L Smith||Point Roberts, WA||244|
|6||David S Smith||Seattle, WA||244|
|7||Erin Smith Bloom||Shoreline, WA||244|
|8||Nancy J Smith||Point Roberts, WA||244|
|9||Desert Shadow||Reno, NV||244|
|10||Patrick Hillard||Kanab, UT||223|
Lake Mead, south of Las Vegas, is the source of irrigation water for the Imperial Valley in California and Arizona, where most of the nation's winter vegetables are grown. (UC Extension 2008). Some crops can absorb radioactive elements from contaminated irrigation water, exposing people and animals that eat the plants (OECD 2002). The lake and the river south of it also supply drinking water for an estimated 25 million residents of Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix, Las Vegas and other cities.
Hardrock mining, whether of gold, copper or other ores, is the nation's leading source of toxic pollution, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA 2008). But the prospect of radioactive waste draining into the Colorado River is especially disturbing, in light of the devastation uranium mining has already inflicted on the West. Near Moab, Utah, a 16 million tons pile of radioactive uranium waste sits almost on top of the Colorado. Decades of water contamination from uranium mining are blamed for high rates of cancer and nervous disorders among the Navajo, whose reservation straddles Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico.
Growing Concern by States and Utilities
With no end in sight to rising uranium and gold prices, and a 136-year-old statute that grants claimholders a near-absolute right to mine, users of Colorado River water are worried.
"The dramatic rise in prices for uranium over the past three years has created a "boom" that has the potential to seriously harm the Grand Canyon National Park and the water quality of the lower Colorado River," Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano wrote in March to Interior Sec. Dirk Kempthorne. She urged him to use emergency powers to remove land near the Grand Canyon from new mining activity and to study the environmental impact of uranium mining in the area. [PDF file]
The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD), which serves 18 million customers in Los Angeles, San Diego and other cities, also wrote to Kempthorne.
"Uranium is a regulated radioactive constituent with significant health concerns associated with it," wrote MWD General Manager Jeffrey Kightlinger. "In addition to the public health impacts, exploration and mining of a radioactive material near a drinking water source may impact the public's confidence in the safety and reliability of the water supply." [PDF file]
Despite the growing threat and mounting concern, under the 1872 General Mining Law federal officials are virtually powerless to prevent mining even if it would affect the West's most precious commodity. In December, the U.S. Forest Service granted approval for preliminary drilling of 39 uranium mines near the south rim of the Grand Canyon, saying the law left no option to deny the proposal. (The drilling has since been put on hold by a federal judge).
Last fall, the House of Representatives passed a comprehensive mining reform bill that would improve standards for protecting Western water and give federal land managers the power to balance mining against water quality, recreation and other needs. But under the leadership of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) - a longtime supporter of his state's mining industry - the Senate has yet to act on its own version of the bill.