Mining in northern Arizona Case Essay
Mining in northern Arizona has had a checkered past.
And mining for uranium ore has had a sullied one.
Most of the problems can be traced to 1872 and a federal mining law that essentially gave away the store in the interest of opening the West to exploration and settlement.
The fact that such a law, which gave private citizens ownership of mineral rights on federal lands, has been allowed to remain on the books for 139 years is testimony to the power of special interests over Congress. We have advocated in this space before and continue to do so today for an overhaul or even the abolition of a law that does far more harm than good.
That said, it is clear that mining reform is not on the near horizon in Congress, so other ways to address uranium mining are needed. Over the years, dozens of federal, state and local laws have sprung up to control the impacts of a wide range of commercial activities on public and private lands, and mining is among them. But the deadly legacy of “yellowcake” on the health of local citizens as well as the environment has many worried that those laws and regulations are not enough.
NEXT BEST THING
As a result, opponents to continued uranium mining have called for what they see as the next best thing to repeal of the 1872 Mining Law: withdrawing more than a million acres north and south of Grand Canyon National Park from future mining for 20 years, the maximum allowed under the law. (Only Congress can enact a permanent withdrawal.)
At present, there is a two-year moratorium while studies are prepared that mining opponents hope will justify the withdrawal based on unavoidable adverse environmental impacts. Those include groundwater contamination, radioactive dust and even the destruction of the mighty Colorado River as a source for drinking water.
The mining industry, on the other hand, has described new techniques that it says will minimize radioactive exposure while serving a vital national need.
NO SLAM DUNK
Those studies were released this past week, and neither side got the slam dunk it was hoping for.
We’ll start with the Grand Canyon and the value it has in the debate as both a massive watershed and a tourist attraction. Neither, according to the studies, would be much affected by modern uranium mining. Radioactive uranium ore, contained in what are called “breccia pipes” and exposed by the deep fissures in canyon country, has leached into local springs and streams for eons. Many test wells near these deposits show water that is unsafe to drink, regardless of mining activity.
As for tourists and mining operations, the studies anticipate few interactions between the two groups. Visitation to the park and tourist spending aren’t likely to be affected much at all.
As for water contamination, one of the biggest concerns by conservationists has been maintaining the Colorado River as a source of drinking water. But the studies found that the river’s volume is so great that whatever radioactive materials might find their way into it would have a negligible impact.
SHALLOW AQUIFERS AT RISK
That doesn’t mean other mining activities would not pose a risk for contaminating groundwater. So-called shallow, “perched” aquifers near some mines that are now drinkable could see levels of radioactivity above drinking water standards if mine shafts were flooded and ore in the breccia pipes found its way into those pools.
How great is the risk? The studies, which take up two volumes each the size of a big-city phone book, use a complex matrix of factors for each of the likely mine sites, based on a seven-year life of a typical mine. The highest risk of contamination is assessed at 13 percent, which is considered moderate. Most others are considered low.
Still, is 13 percent a chance worth taking? The studies point out that most of the perched aquifers are isolated and self-contained, while the larger and deeper aquifers are too large to be affected by contamination from one mine.
The biggest wild card is one that a 20-year withdrawal is not going to affect: The impact of mining claims that are grandfathered and likely to be mined if uranium prices remain high. The studies identified about a dozen likely mine sites under the moratorium, vs. 30 if there is no withdrawal. And that doesn’t count the mines that might be developed on nearly state and private lands, which are not covered in any federal withdrawal.
OUT OF SIGHT, OUT OF MIND
In other words, while a blanket withdrawal might seem on paper to end uranium mining near the Grand Canyon, its likely effect will be to push the problem out of sight and out of mind when, in fact, the industry needs more exposure and oversight than ever.
What’s needed is a dramatic increase in the resources available to regulators who oversee the mining industry. As Reporter Cyndy Cole has documented, the Arizona agency in charge of reviewing plans and conducting inspections for a reopened uranium mine on the Arizona Strip wasn’t staffed up enough to enforce key conditions of the operating permit. It relied on a sort of honor system that had mine officials filling out reports and certifying themselves as in compliance.
Even though today’s mines bear little resemblance to Cold War era mines, the days when mine operators do self-policing should be long gone. More frequent site visits by inspectors are needed, and armed with the power to shut down a mine immediately until violations are corrected.
If we can’t change the 1872 Mining Law and if at least a dozen uranium mines will be operating on the Colorado Plateau regardless of a federal withdrawal, let’s put the focus on tightly regulating an industry that has the potential to do much good if its risks can be brought under control.
Contributors: Publisher Don Rowley, Editor Randy Wilson, and citizen members Doug Miller, Blake Nabours, Liz Rutledge, Brian Johnson and Helen Merrill.
(Copyright 2011 azdailysun.com)