Public comment sought for Grand Canyon uranium mining

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz.- The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) will host public meetings in December and January about plans to permit three uranium mines that threaten the wildlife and ecology of Grand Canyon National Park. A meeting will be held in Flagstaff at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 1 at the Sinagua Middle School auditorium. A hearing will be held at 6 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 6 at the same location. Sinagua Middle School is located at 3950 E. Butler Ave.

Denison Mines, a Canadian- and Korean-owned mining firm, is seeking state air permits for the Pinenut and Canyon uranium mines and air and aquifer protection permits for the EZ uranium mine. The agency is proposing to permit the EZ mine with a general aquifer-protection permit that includes far fewer requirements than an individual permit.

"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," said Alicyn Gitlin with the Sierra Club's Grand Canyon Chapter.

The proposed air permits require mine operators to report violations and emergencies within 24 hours of learning of toxic releases but include no emergency procedures for containing releases, alerting the public or containing uranium spilled during ore-hauling accidents. Ore from the Canyon mine would be hauled through Williams, Flagstaff and Cameron.

The mines are located within the 1 million-acre watershed of the Grand Canyon that the Obama administration has proposed as off-limits to mining. That proposal followed concerns by tribes, scientists, businesses, local governments and conservation groups that uranium mining around Grand Canyon could harm wildlife, industrialize wildlands and deplete or contaminate aquifers that feed the Grand Canyon's seeps and springs.

The Mine Safety and Health Administration has issued more than 60 citations since 2009 relating to operations at Denison's Arizona 1 mine north of Grand Canyon and the company's Pandora uranium mine in Utah, where there was a mining fatality earlier this year. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a notice of violation to Denison in 2010 for starting the Arizona 1 mine without obtaining Clean Air Act permits relating to radon emissions. Conservation groups and tribes are suing the Bureau of Land Management in federal court for allowing Denison to open the Arizona 1 mine in 2009 without updating 1980s-era mining plans and environmental reviews.

"Neither the state nor the feds - nor Denison - can ensure that mining won't permanently damage Grand Canyon's aquifers, and they can't ensure such damage can be fixed if it does occur," said Taylor McKinnon with the Center for Biological Diversity. "Those aren't risks that should be taken."

A 2010 U.S. Geological Survey report examining the impacts of uranium mining on Grand Canyon concluded that: "Uranium mining within the watershed may increase the amount of radioactive materials and heavy metals in the surface water and groundwater flowing into Grand Canyon National Park and the Colorado River, and deep mining activities may increase mobilization of uranium through the rock strata into the aquifers. In addition, waste rock and ore from mined areas may be transported away from the mines by wind and runoff."

It found radiation levels and toxic substances were consistently higher on mined sites compared to unmined sites north of Grand Canyon; it also found uranium concentrations exceeding EPA drinking-water standards in 15 springs and five wells related to past mining.

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