In an ominous move, the Forest Service has approved drilling for uranium at as many as 39 sites near the Grand Canyon’s south rim, marking what may be the beginning of a rush to mine the radioactive mineral near the iconic National Park.
The approvals were granted to VANE Minerals, a British firm, and highlight the vulnerability of even our most sacred places to global demand for minerals under the antiquated Mining Law of 1872. To make matters worse, the Forest Service specifically excluded these projects from public and environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act.
Without changes to the current law or other federal intervention, public land managers have virtually no power to stop metal mining activities – the nation’s leading source of toxic pollution – even when national parks and other treasured places are at risk.
Permits to drill for uranium just outside Grand Canyon National Park are a direct result of surging global metals prices and a related explosion in mining claims across the West since 2003. According to Bureau of Land Management records, claims within five miles of Grand Canyon National Park have increased from 815 last July to 1,130 this January, a jump of nearly 40 percent. Most, if not all, of these claims are for uranium. As of January 2003, there were only 10 claims within five miles of the Park. Overall the number of claims West-wide increased 80 percent between 2003 and 2007 from about 200,000 to more than 375,000.
Under current law this explosion of mining claims presents a real threat to national parks and all public places across the West. The December 20, 2007 Forest Service approval documents [PDF], obtained by the Grand Canyon Trust, describe the situation in stark terms:
"The 1872 Mining Law specifically authorizes the taking of valuable mineral commodities from Public Domain Lands. A ‘No Action’ alternative is not an option that can be considered."
These comments echo the recent testimony of former Forest Service Chief and former director of the Bureau of Land Management, Michael Dombeck, who told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in January that "once claimed, it is nearly impossible to prohibit mining under the current framework of the 1872 Mining Law, no matter how serious the impacts might be."
The House of Representatives passed a metal mining reform bill last fall that would empower the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to prevent mining near places such as the Grand Canyon. The bill’s prospects in the Senate are uncertain even as full-scale uranium mining near the Canyon appears imminent and other National Parks including California’s Death Valley are threatened by a global land rush for minerals.
If the Senate and President Bush fail to act, taxpayers and federal land managers may face the same situation they did in 1996 when the federal government paid $65 million to buy out patented claims just three miles from Yellowstone National Park that would have been the site of a major gold mine. The mine would have been located at the headwaters of three streams that flow into the park.
More Mining Activity Near Grand Canyon Likely
VANE’s uranium drilling approvals may be just the beginning of mining activity near the Grand Canyon. VANE issued a news release about the approval of drilling sites near the Canyon suggesting that it will seek more approvals soon.
"The Company is very encouraged with these approvals and believes it has established a process whereby approvals can be obtained for projects on Forest lands on a timely basis moving forward," the release said. VANE added that it "is presently looking to contract a second rig suitable for breccia pipe drilling in order to accelerate the pipe exploration program." Beccia pipes are a type of uranium deposit found near the Grand Canyon.
The Arizona Game and Fish Department (AGFD) reported last May that approximately 25 companies are staking claims on the Arizona Strip, an area of public land immediately north of Grand Canyon National Park, and six of the 25 have presented formal proposals to the BLM for mining activity.
One of these companies, Quaterra Resources, a Canadian firm, last year proposed to drill exploratory holes for uranium on claims just north of the Canyon. The operation would include a helicopter pad to carry supplies in and out in an area already crisscrossed by dozens of tourist flyovers a day.
Driving the boom is surging global demand that has increased prices for copper, gold, uranium and other metals. Uranium prices have jumped from about $10 a pound in 2004 to approximately $80 a pound today, caused by renewed interest in nuclear power.
Uranium Mining Linked to Contamination of Water, Air
The AGFD reported that it did not know what type of techniques mining companies would use to extract uranium near the Canyon but all of the methods have the potential for radioactive pollution. One possibility is called in situ leach mining in which companies inject chemicals into underground deposits to leach out the uranium. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) found in a recent report that while in situ leaching "in general" is less harmful than traditional uranium mining and milling, "the use of leaching fluids to mine uranium contaminates the groundwater aquifer in and around the region from which the uranium is extracted." The agencies added that "groundwater restoration represents a substantial portion of the cost of decommissioning at a uranium leach mining facility."
The other potential types of uranium mining include open-pit mining and removal of ore from underground mines. Each type of uranium mining has been associated with contamination of ground or surface water the AGFD reported. Such contamination could be an even greater cause for concern because the Colorado River flows through the Grand Canyon and provides drinking water for millions of residents downstream including those in Las Vegas and Los Angeles.
Other Parks at Risk
The Board of Supervisors of Coconino County, the county that encompasses much of the land in and around Grand Canyon National Park, unanimously passed a resolution on February 5th opposing uranium development in the vicinity of Grand Canyon National Park and calling for Congress to place federal land near the Canyon off-limits to new mining activity. The County acted at the urging of local citizens and the Grand Canyon Trust which is also supporting broader reform of the mining law.
Even if Coconino County were successful in persuading Congress to withdraw land from new mining activity near the Grand Canyon, federal officials would have to contend with the possibility of mining on valid existing claims near the park and would have to address mining threats to other national parks.
"We are very concerned," Death Valley National Park Supt. James T. Reynolds told the Los Angeles Times in October about the surge in claims near that Park. "I hope the public understands the destruction that will occur. Development will have far-reaching impacts that our grandchildren will have to address."
"Unfortunately, we don't have the authority to stop" any of the claims, Reynolds said, echoing the Forest Service decision to allow drilling for uranium near the Grand Canyon.
Other national parks and monuments with claims staked within five miles include Arches and Canyonlands in Utah, Death Valley and Yosemite in California and Mt. Saint Helens in Washington. While these nearby claims may be the most worrisome for the parks, claims even farther away could also pose problems. Utah’s Bingham Canyon mine, for example, has created a plume of contaminated groundwater that covers 72 square miles according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Death Valley’s Reynolds noted that the biggest threat to Death Valley is the depletion of groundwater, which is affected by mining, farming and nearby residential development. "If too much water is pumped from the aquifer, then the seeps in the springs in Death Valley will no longer flow," he said. "Plants will die, animals will die and they would even have to truck in water to the valley's private resort."
Reynolds told the Los Angeles Times that he is in negotiations with two borite mining companies to convince them to donate their land to the park. Reynolds has strongly opposed the reopening of the Briggs mine, an open-pit cyanide heap leach operation in the Panamint Range on the park's western border. Cyanide heap leaching is a method in which companies place the huge quantities of rock and earth on a plastic-lined heap leach pad and then spray or drip cyanide over the pile. As the cyanide trickles through the heap, it binds to the precious metal. The mining company then collects the metal from the cyanide solution in liquid-filled pits at the base of the rock pile. Canyon Resources, the company that owns the Briggs Mine, has a history of pollution in Montana. Its Kendall Mine was permitted in 1989 and has exceeded water quality standards according to the EPA. Canyon Resources led an unsuccessful attempt in 2004 to overturn a Montana state law, passed by voters in 1998, that bans open-pit cyanide heap leach gold mining. Previously, the company sued the state of Montana for "taking" its potential profits due to passage of the law.
Canyon Resources says on its website that "re-starting the Briggs Mine in light of today's gold market is Canyon's top priority."