Energy Fuels Resources announced that it plans to reopen its Canyon Mine near the Grand Canyon in Arizona despite a 20-year federal ban on new uranium mining, imposed early last year by the Interior Department, that covers 1 million acres near the Canyon.
Energy Fuels Resources applied for its permit in 1984 and began preliminary surface work in 1986 but closed the operation before it became a fully operational mine because of weak prices for uranium. The price of uranium has climbed recently and the company plans to begin mining again.
Because it began mining in 1986, the company says the current ban doesn’t apply because its rights are grandfathered. The company has already won state and federal approval, The Republic reported.
Environmentalists and the Havasupai Tribe counter that those rights were granted before science was able to show the full potential impact of uranium mining, which opponents fear will poison water that feeds natural springs in the Canyon.
The Grand Canyon Trust, along with the Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Havasupai Tribe filed suit in March against the Forest Service in federal court in Prescott.
Environmental groups and the Havasupai Tribe are suing to force an updated examination of potential radioactive pollution.
In its September 1986 decision approving the mine, the U.S. Forest Service said it had researched potential groundwater and spring contamination and found “that adverse impacts either during or after mining operations were extremely unlikely.”
Opponents say newer studies indicate pathways for trouble. One study, conducted in preparation for an old development plan at Tusayan, found that groundwater pumping at that Grand Canyon gateway sucked water from the vicinity of the mine. Another, by the U.S. Geological Survey, included models based on known subsurface geology funneling water toward Havasu Springs.
The Forest Service had no way of knowing these things before the 1986 approval, Northern Arizona University hydrogeologist Abe Springer said.
One thing that remains unknown, Springer said, is how water from a mine might reach the aquifer, which in places is 3,000 ft deep. The uranium is in a formation known as a breccia pipe — a mineral mass deposited after ancient waters dissolved old rock. Mining companies argue that these are well-sealed from waters below.
Scientists have never placed instruments inside a breccia pipe to monitor the water flow.
The mine is north of Red Butte, one of the most prominent markers on this part of the Coconino Plateau and a site where the Havasupais say their “grandmother” hears their prayers. Tribal Vice Chairman Matthew Putesoy Sr. said it is for that reason and the fear for its water source that the tribe sued.
During a “Sacred Lands Solidarity” rally outside a tribal gaming convention in downtown Phoenix, Navajo activist Klee Benally said the mine and its proximity to Red Butte are insults to Native American beliefs. At the rally, tribes from around the country complained of improper development, including some done by tribes themselves.
The Forest Service continues to consult with tribes regarding sacred-site protection, but Putesoy said discussions about the Canyon Mine have not satisfied the Havasupais.
If the mine reopens, the ore will be trucked to Blanding, in southeastern Utah, for milling.