Colorado River Agencies Urge Caution on Uranium Mining Near Grand Canyon
WASHINGTON, May 17 – Uranium mining near the Grand Canyon could have health impacts and erode trust in the safety of drinking water supplies for 26 million residents of Southern California, Nevada and Arizona, the region’s water suppliers warn.
In a letter to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the Lower Colorado River Water Partnership expressed concern that the draft environmental study for a plan that could allow uranium mining near the Canyon does not address worst-case scenarios should safeguards fail to prevent radioactive material from flowing downstream. The Partnership also said it had “substantial concerns” that uranium mining could deplete water supplies in the drought-prone region.
The Lower Colorado River Water Partnership includes the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which serves 19 million people in the Los Angeles basin; the Central Arizona Project, which supplies drinking and agricultural water to 80 percent of the state, including metro Phoenix and Tucson, and the Southern Nevada Water Authority, with 2 million customers in the Las Vegas metro area. All draw much of their water from the Colorado River after it passes through the Grand Canyon and is stored at Hoover Dam.
“The effects of increased mining within the subject area may affect consumer confidence over the safety and reliability of the Colorado River for its use as a municipal drinking water supply, irrespective of any definitive public health impacts,” said the letter dated May 3. “Considering the tragic aftermath of the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the public has a heightened concern over the potential for even minute amounts of radiation in water supplies.”
After placing a moratorium on new uranium mining claims inside a million-acre area near the Canyon in 2009, the Interior Department is considering four different scenarios for future activity on the land. If no action is taken, companies could operate 30 mines within 20 years. The most protective option would ban future claims in the area while mining on claims already filed could go forward only if companies met tougher standards. Earlier this month, Earthworks and Environmental Working Group submitted formal comments to Interior calling for the most protective option.
“The Grand Canyon is an American icon, but it also is part of a water network that provides the most basic need of a vast area of the Southwest,” said Lauren Pagel, policy director of EARTHWORKS, an international mining reform organization. “We can’t take chances with the safety and supply of water in the Colorado River.”
Dusty Horwitt, senior counsel for Environmental Working Group, which obtained the letter, said EWG’s research found 39 uranium claims within one mile of Grand Canyon National Park and 587 within five miles, each one of which could be the location of a uranium mine.
“Uranium mining near the Grand Canyon is a giant gamble that could endanger our most famous national park and drinking water for 26 million Americans,” said Horwitt. “The Interior Department should take every precaution to prevent mining in this sensitive area.”
Horwitt said concerns about uranium mining go beyond the area of the Grand Canyon, to the 2,500 claims within five miles of the Colorado River and its tributaries. In its letter the Water Partnership agreed.
“Historical uranium mining has led to considerable environmental damage, with subsequent cleanup efforts taking decades to complete,” said the letter. “One prime example is the uranium mill tailings pile that sits along the Colorado River near Moab, Utah. Although removal of the 16-million-ton tailings pile is underway, the remediation of this site comes with considerable costs and the prolonged threat to the Colorado River persists until final cleanup is complete. It is therefore critical that potential water quality effects are fully understood prior to the exploration and mining of uranium and other minerals in all areas proximate to the Colorado River and its tributaries.”