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MINING URANIUM
New uranium mines: no simple answers

A town on the edge of the Navajo Nation that unknowingly drank uranium-tainted water for at least 12 years.

Navajo babies showing increasing uranium concentrations during their first year of life.

Children swimming in natural pools near Cameron they later learned had been filled with water from abandoned uranium mines.

The stories about the impacts of Cold War-era uranium mining on the Navajo Nation became highly personal during a forum hosted at the Museum of Northern Arizona Wednesday night.

Four decades later, the subject has come to the fore again as a grandfathered uranium mine moves forward with operations south of Tusayan and a new president stokes fears about the reopening of 1 million acres of the Grand Canyon watershed outside the national park to new mining.

“The 20-year mineral withdrawal is now up for grabs under the current administration,” the Grand Canyon Trust’s Roger Clark said Wednesday night.

Among most at the forum, the thinking was obvious: Allowing more mining around the Grand Canyon is opening the door to repeating past mistakes.

But as it stands, researchers haven’t yet determined if data from soils, waters and living inhabitants largely supports or refutes such a fear. They are still nailing down possible sources of high uranium measured in a handful of waters in the watershed, are just starting to understand how water travels through rock layers that surround the breccia pipe uranium mines and have completed only an initial set of studies on how surface operations could impact nearby plants and animals.

What is clear, however, is that modern mining in the Grand Canyon isn’t simply a repeat of the past. Different mining methods, more rigorous regulations and a better understanding of underground water and geology make evaluation of the current risks its own, complicated beast.

MINING THEN AND NOW

On the Navajo Nation, uranium mines were blasted into plains, mesas and mountains across the landscape. The methods created radioactive waste piles, open tunnels and pits. Much of the mining, which occurred between World War II and the 1980s, predated the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of associated environmental laws. Groundwater contamination from mining has stretched for miles and crossed state lines, and more than 500 abandoned uranium mines remain on the Navajo Nation. Just nine have seen cleanup or stabilization work by the EPA.

In the Grand Canyon area, two mines on the North Rim — Pinenut and Kanab North — are in various stages of closure while another, Arizona 1 is on maintenance status. At the grandfathered Canyon Mine south of Tusayan on the South Rim, mine owner Energy Fuels Resources has drilled a main shaft to about 1,500 feet and is continuing with ore evaluation and mine planning. Spokesman Curtis Moore said the company is not publicly announcing when it expects ore mining to begin, though past estimates were for mid-2018.

The mines have a much different uranium target than those on the Navajo Nation: large, underground vertical pipes of high-grade uranium ore that measure 200 to 300 feet in diameter and 1,500 to 2,500 feet in length. Mine shafts are dug parallel to the uranium-rich breccia pipes and from there miners tunnel horizontally into the ore. The ore is dug out, then scooped up with machines like small bobcats and transported to the surface, where it’s dumped in piles, said Frank Bain, a mining consultant who has worked in the industry for 40 years.

State and federal agencies regulate mining activities like the amount of ore that can be stockpiled at the surface and how dust must be contained onsite. Energy Fuels must submit quarterly and annual water quality data to the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, spokeswoman Caroline Oppleman said in an email.

As for deeper groundwater, Moore said a wall of impermeable rock protects the aquifer beneath the mine shaft.

“Again, Energy Fuels and our regulators are confident that the Canyon Mine will have no impact on water,” Moore wrote in an email.

CREATING A PICTURE

That sort of certainty isn’t echoed by the U.S. Geological Survey researchers tasked by the Interior Department with determining potential impacts of uranium mining to the Grand Canyon environment.

Five years into their research, USGS scientists haven’t yet answered whether mining will or won’t affect groundwater, much less as what level of contamination and for how long, said Fred Tillman, who is leading the team investigating water resource impacts.

The groundwater system is complex and not yet well-understood, though researchers are finding evidence of connections between the surface and the deepest aquifers that challenge the assertion of an impermeable barrier between them. (See related article)

The USGS is hoping more information will come from future spring and creek monitoring as well as a monitoring well installed in the perched aquifer near Canyon Mine.

ON THE SURFACE

It’s the job of Jo Ellen Hinck to figure out how uranium mining might affect animals and plants near the canyon. Her colleague Katie Walton-Day is measuring surface radiation and levels of uranium and other mining-related elements in soils around mine sites.

Five years after starting their research, Hinck said her team is just now getting a picture of what the data means. Walton-Day agreed that many information gaps still exist.

Among their initial findings:

  • Tadpoles living in Canyon Mine’s containment pond registered levels of selenium and arsenic above wildlife toxicity thresholds and significantly greater than tadpoles living in nearby ponds and springs. 
  • Studies measured significantly greater uranium concentrations in the plants and mammals at the now-closed Kanab North mine before reclamation began compared to Canyon Mine, which has not produced any ore to date.
  • Soil samples taken inside and outside of the perimeter of Canyon Mine indicate that mining-related constituents haven't made their way offsite during mine site development.

WEIGHING RISKS AND THE UNKNOWN

Even with the boost in research resources deployed across the Grand Canyon after the 2012 withdrawal decision, researchers themselves say it’s far from enough.

The USGS originally planned to have eight to 10 monitoring wells, for example, but so far it has received funding to drill only one into the shallow aquifer near Canyon Mine, Tillman said.

Dave Kreamer, a hydrologist with the University of Nevada Las Vegas who has spend decades researching water sources in the Grand Canyon, called current monitoring "totally inadequate" to detect possible contamination.

“I’ve seen countries in the developing world that have better monitoring of mine sites than what they’re exhibiting in Grand Canyon," Kreamer said. 

 The mines around the Grand Canyon also don’t have a spotless record.

  • In 2009 the owner of Pinenut mine found that 2.8 million gallons of water had accumulated in the mine shaft since it was put on standby in 1989.
  • In 2010, the USGS reported evidence that wind had dispersed uranium-rich dust offsite at three mined sites.
  • In 2016, uranium concentrations in soils near Pinenut Mine measured more than four times background levels, triggering additional dust control measures.
  • In 2017, Canyon Mine was issued a violation notice by state regulators for using giant hoses to spray water out of its containment pond that was overflowing due an influx of aquifer water flowing into the mine shaft.

Those violations bring up the question of what sorts of impacts should be expected and accepted in return for the benefits of mining, Bain said.

“There is a little bit of a cost of doing business,” Bain said. “You have to admit, mining is hard on the landscape. Is that a price you want to pay so you can have electricity and not live in a cave? It’s hard to say.”


Emery Cowan / File photo courtesy of Robert Tohe 

The Canyon Uranium Mine near Tusayan.


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Connections complex between water and uranium mines

Coleen Kaska is a member of the Havasupai Tribe, whose village deep in the Grand Canyon depends on nearby springs and seeps as its sole source of water. Several of the springs also feed Havasu Creek, which runs through the village of Supai and forms the turquoise waterfalls that bring thousands of tourists to the Havasupai reservation each year, sustaining the tribe’s economy.

“For 30-plus years this has been a struggle to protect our aquifer that feeds the river in our village,” Kaska said Wednesday night at a forum on uranium mining at the Museum of Northern Arizona. Many who oppose uranium mining in the Grand Canyon watershed say it risks contaminating groundwater sources with enough uranium that the connected springs and seeps would be unsafe for the plants and animals those water sources sustain. 

A lack of evidence supporting or refuting that concern was one of the driving factors in the Obama administration's 2012 decision to withdraw nearly 1 million acres near the Grand Canyon from new mining claims.

Both before and after the withdrawal decision, researchers have fanned out across the Grand Canyon to study the region’s groundwater system and the possible connections between mining and water sources. Five years later, the science is still far from providing a definite answer, said Fred Tillman, who leads the U.S. Geological Survey team tasked with looking at the potential impacts of uranium mining on water resources.

Opponents of uranium mining often cite a 2010 USGS report that five wells and 15 springs in the region were found to have uranium levels above the federal drinking water limit, including springs and streams near two now-closed uranium mines from the Cold War era. On top of that, a research team from the University of Nevada Las Vegas measured uranium levels in the creek near one of those mines, the Orphan Mine, whose shaft was first sunk in 1906, that were more than three times the drinking water limit.

But those high uranium concentrations aren’t unequivocally related to mining — they could be due to natural processes too, or a mixture of both, the same 2010 USGS report said. The ore at the Orphan Mine, for example, is an ancient exposed breccia pipe on the side of the South Rim cliff face.  And a January study found that uranium concentrations three times the drinking water limit measured in Pigeon Spring are more likely related to natural sources than the nearby, Pigeon Mine, which many had suspected. The mine, now closed, operated from 1984 to 1991.

At the same time, researchers are producing findings that cast doubt on assurances by mining advocates that breccia pipe uranium mining isn’t a risk to water sources because hundreds of feet of impermeable rock separate the bottom of the mine shaft from the deeper regional aquifer.

In fact, studies are showing that water falling on the surface can reach deep underground aquifers and then emerge in springs and seeps within a matter of days.

DISTURBING THE SYSTEM

As it migrates downward, water naturally comes into contact with the uranium ore-rich breccia pipes. In their undisturbed state, the pipes are a low-oxygen environment that causes uranium to precipitate out of water as crystals that aren’t prone to mobilize, said David Kreamer, a hydrologist at UNLV who has spent decades doing water studies like those near the Orphan Mine.

Mining the pipes changes the game, he said.

Inserting a mine shaft into the area and introducing oxygen into the deeper geologic layers “throws the chemical balance back into dissolve mode,” increasing the ability for the uranium to redissolve into water and migrate, Kreamer said.

Water isn’t supposed to migrate into modern mines during operations — the underground tunnels, openings and shafts are meant to be dry. But that isn’t always the case.

This spring, Canyon Mine pierced a shallow aquifer with its drilling activities, causing water to seep into the shaft that operators have had to pump out. A volume equivalent to what would come from a constantly running garden hose continues to enter the shaft, and last spring the spokesman for Canyon Mine's owner, Energy Fuels Resources, said that uranium concentrations in the water were found to be about three times drinking water limits.

Across the canyon at Pinenut Mine, the owner reported in 2009 that 2.8 million gallons of water had accumulated in the mine shaft since it was put on standby in 1989. That had to be pumped out as well. 

Once mines are closed and reclaimed, they are supposed to be capped and the shafts refilled with wasterock. But there is no stopping groundwater from flowing into the voids left in the shaft and the mined pipe where it could pick up remaining uranium ore, Tillman said.

Emery Cowan / U.S. Geological Survey  

Conceptual model of a modern breccia pipe uranium mine.

“It seems impossible to keep water away,” he said.

Energy Fuels spokesman Curtis Moore agreed that water will likely seep into the mine and shaft over time, but won't be able to reach the deeper aquifer due to impermeable rock.

“Energy Fuels and our regulators are confident that the Canyon Mine will have no impact on water,” he wrote in an email.

GOUNDWATER CONNECTIONS

Researchers studying the area describe a varied and unmapped network of groundwater connections beneath the Coconino Plateau.

“(Water) will find fissures and cracks and other structures and find its way down to regional aquifer,” Tillman said.

Other findings support that description. 

One study of an exposed breccia pipe in Grand Canyon National Park found fractures extended from the bottom of the breccia pipe down to the bedrock.

“So if stormwater were to penetrate the breccia pipe it could find its way all the way down to groundwater,” said Malcolm Alter, a former geologic engineer who authored the study.

His study didn’t examine whether similar fractures extend from other breccia pipes, but Alter said the way to make sure water doesn’t pass from uranium rock to groundwater is to keep the mines dry.

Other studies on the north rim of the Grand Canyon suggest that water’s movement from surface to aquifer could be happening over a matter of days or weeks. For three years, Grand Canyon National Park hydrologist Ben Tobin has been putting fluorescent dye in sinkholes on the Kaibab Plateau, then tracking drainages and springs in the canyon to see where the dye turns up. In one test, it took less than a month for dye injected on the Kaibab Plateau to turn up in water sources as far as 26 miles away and 6,000 feet lower than where it began, Tobin said.

Another study by a graduate student at Northern Arizona University showed that after a monsoon event, it took just days to measure a response in springs fed by the regional aquifer, Tobin said.

There’s an important caveat that the behavior of groundwater and springs on the South Rim may be much different than what’s being observed on the North Rim and the underground structures of sinkholes may be different than breccia pipes, Tobin said. From what he has seen so far, Tobin said the 1,000-plus feet of rock between the breccia pipe mines and regional groundwater may be an impenetrable barrier in some cases but in other cases it clearly is not.

Other research, including projects led by Kreamer from UNLV, is looking at connections between mines and the shallower perched aquifers. One of Kreamer's projects found the characteristics of water near Canyon Mine mirror those of water coming out of Grapevine Springs in the Grand Canyon — a sign the two could be connected, Kreamer said.

DILUTION FACTOR

Frank Bain is a mining consultant who has worked in uranium exploration near the canyon. Even if groundwater comes into contact with uranium mines and then reaches the regional aquifer below, it will get so diluted that the impact will be negligible, Bain said.

Tobin’s studies of groundwater flows beneath the Kaibab Plateau aren’t advanced enough to measure dilution, so they couldn’t determine how uranium present in water at the surface, for example, might be diluted by the time it makes its way into the regional aquifer, he said.

In a general sense, though, the drastic scenarios of uranium mines contaminating the Colorado River are unlikely, at least based on current data and mining activity, Don Bills, a USGS hydrologist in Flagstaff, said in a 2014 interview. Springs and creeks that have recorded high uranium concentrations have ephemeral or very small flows so by the time they reach the river, their waters are so diluted that any elevated uranium concentrations are “essentially impossible to detect,” Bills said.


Benji Shanahan, Arizona Daily Sun 

Runners set their pace to cross the finish line Saturday morning at the annual Soulstice Run in Flagstaff.


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Advocates: Trump immigration demands complicate DACA replacement

WASHINGTON – Advocates and lawmakers in Arizona say the path to a bill protecting DREAMers got more difficult this week, when the White House issued a list of immigration policy priorities that it said must be part of any DACA legislation.

In a letter to House and Senate leaders Sunday, President Donald Trump said he will not support any legislation that does not include funding for a border wall, increased immigration enforcement in the interior, an end to “chain migration” and other requirements.

One state lawmaker said Thursday that she was “absolutely horrified” when she saw Trump’s demands while an analyst in Washington said the “incredibly unreasonable” list is “just a way to sabotage negotiation” on any bill to replace the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Tucson, called Trump’s negotiation posture “extortion.” He called on House Democrats to ignore the rhetoric and work toward a permanent solution like the DREAM Act, by separating the issues of a pathway to citizenship for 800,000 DACA recipients from border security and stricter enforcement.

“It’s holding 800,000 young people hostage so that he can get his political agenda on immigration done,” Grijalva said Thursday of the president’s statement. “I think it’s sad and very unpresidential, but him going back on his word and lying doesn’t seem to be a problem with this president.”

Robert Neustadt, the director of Latin American Studies at Northern Arizona University and an activist for immigrant rights, said he is hoping and advocating for a “clean” DREAM Act.

“In other words, we believe that Dreamers should be given the right to work, the right to drive, protection from deportation and a path to legal residency and citizenship,” Neustadt said in an email. “Dreamers cannot and should not be used as a bargaining chip. Their immigration relief should not be linked to a border enforcement surge.”

Neustadt, who is a member of the group called Keep Flagstaff Together, said the group is happy to talk to anyone regardless of their DACA status and research whether they can help offer legal relief.

Lori Poloni-Staudinger, the founder and executive director of Together We Will Northern Arizona, said her group will continue to fundraise to pay for legal aid as well as a bail and bond fund specifically for undocumented people arrested in Flagstaff.

But Arizona Republican Reps. Paul Gosar of Prescott and Andy Biggs of Gilbert hailed Trump’s action, commending him for following through on stricter enforcement of immigration policies, something that was central to his campaign.

“I applaud @POTUS for keeping his immigration promises to the American people,” Gosar said in a Tweet Monday. “We must secure our borders, and he is going to do just that.”

Biggs said he thinks most Americans and most of Congress agree – but acknowledged that one of the “major hindrances” for the administration will be getting past the 60 votes needed in the Senate to head off a filibuster on the proposals.

“I am confident that, if enacted by Congress, these actions would secure our open borders and reduce incentives for illegal immigrants to remain in or enter the United States,” Biggs said in a statement Tuesday. “The American people are tired of these flip flops, and we must give them the results they deserve – before any other reforms are enacted.”

The “immigration principles and policies” laid out by Trump list more than 70 items in three broad areas. The first, border security, includes building a wall and making it easier to repatriate unaccompanied children, asylum seekers and other immigrants. Interior enforcement includes cracking down on sanctuary cities, hiring 10,000 immigration officers and requiring use of e-Verify when hiring. The final category, establishing a merit-based immigration system, calls for giving preference to skilled and financially stable immigrants, among other changes.

Arizona Rep. Isela Blanc, D-Tempe, during a conference call Thursday on how children of DACA recipients could be affected by loss of the program, said she was “absolutely horrified” by Trump’s proposal. She called it a response to the growing Hispanic population in the U.S. and a way of “redefining what this White House wants this America to be…. Which is more white.”

“This administration is attacking families, is breaking apart families, creating fear and hurting children,” Blanc said. “We have children who are in fear for their parents, wondering if their mom or their dad will be home when they arrive from school.

“We have to start asking ourselves, ‘Is that the America we want to live in and are those demands appropriate?’ Absolutely not,” she said.

DACA is an Obama-era program that allowed immigrants who were brought here illegally as children to be protected from deportation for two years at a time and get work permits – but it did not change their citizenship status.

Critics have called it an executive overreach, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced in September that the Trump administration would end the program on March 5. No new DACA applications are being accepted, and people whose coverage lapses after March 5 could be subject to deportation.

Sessions and Trump said the six-month “winding down” of the program would give Congress time to act on a replacement plan. But David Bier, an immigration analyst at the CATO Institute, said the latest Trump demands are “poisoning the well” and undermining any chance for bipartisan negotiation on a replacement bill.

“There’s no negotiation that’s going to happen around these principles – this is just a way to sabotage negotiation,” Bier said Thursday. “If you look at the major points of emphasis here they’re really just non-negotiable items.”

Bier, noting Trump’s apparent willingness last month to work with Democrats on a DACA deal separate from issues like a border wall, said the latest demands indicate that whoever wrote the letter “does not have the same interests at heart as the president does.”

Petra Falcon, of the Latino voter outreach organization Promise Arizona, said any policy change must include a path to citizenship for immigrants but that it would be wrong to barter that against a wall, border security and tougher interior enforcement.

“To mix the two issues together is wrong,” Falcon said Thursday. “Immigrants who come to this country to provide for their families are being used as scapegoats for our security issues, for our drug-trafficking problem.”