We suppose it would be easy to blame what we will call the “Uranium Mess in the West” on the General Mining Act of 1872.
But that would overlook nearly a century and a half of subsequent neglect by Congress, inadequate oversight by federal regulators and “cut and run” tactics by corporate mining interests.
The result is a uranium mining industry that suffers from the sins of its predecessors, despite vast improvements in environmental safety.
So while the U.S. Forest Service and the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality wrestle with how to let new or existing mines operate, the EPA is heading up a cleanup operation on the Navajo Nation targeting mines left over from the 1960s.
The sites on the Rez are just a fraction of the 15,000 mines known to have “uranium occurrence” in 14 Western states. About 75 percent of those are on federal and tribal lands, according to the EPA.
When the mines were abandoned, many were never remediated to prevent soil, water and air contamination from disturbed radioactive ore. And when the EPA finally moved to order cleanups, some companies filed for bankruptcy, leaving the federal government to pick up the tab.
One settlement for $1 billion, however, is helping to underwrite the cleanup of the four dozen worst mining sites on the Rez. They are the ones close to homes and have high levels of radiation or are close to water sources. The EPA has agreements with 30 companies responsible for the mines, and the Justice Department is funding the assessment and cleanup of the additional 16.
In addition to the health and safety protections the work will afford residents, there will also be jobs that we hope will go to local workers through local contractors and subcontractors. It’s time the mines finally paid back at least a small share of the toll they have taken on the Rez.
Meanwhile, a half-dozen mines off the Rez but in the Grand Canyon watershed are looking to reopen even though new mining is prohibited for the next 20 years by executive order. We’ve saidin the past that the Forest Service and BLM should require new environmental impact statements in light of new underground mining techniques, transportation and processing. Instead, the old permits were reviewed and amended but allowed to remain in force.
But ADEQ must still issue annual air quality permits to account for any radioactive dust the mines and their trucks release, and it has tightened the standards. Given recent readings that show higher-than-normal radioactivity in the soil around one mine, that sounds reasonable, although we think that soil readings should be taken more than once a year. There are also recommendations to halt loading when winds exceed 25 mph and reducing any ore stockpiles if radiation levels exceed certain triggers.
The closest Flagstaff will come to the operation will be when up to 12 trucks a day from a mine near Tusayan start rolling through town if the National Park Service prohibits transport on Highway 64 along the East Rim to Highway 89. The ore is heading to a processing plant in Utah, and while the risks of catastrophic contamination from an overturned truck into, say, the Rio de Flag or the Little Colorado River are slight, we’d hope any trucks would be sealed tight, not just covered with a tarp.
We have contended in the past that if any watershed in the country deserves extra protections it is the Grand Canyon for all the obvious reasons. Uranium mining moratoria and the creation of national monuments that ban mining permanently would be unnecessary if enough buyout money is offered for all current and future claims -- unless Congress is prepared to finally overhaul the 1872 mining law (which it isn’t). A buyout is what Bruce Babbitt did when he wanted to end pumice mining on the San Francisco Peaks, and some kind of compensation fund should be on the table in the Grand Canyon watershed, too.
Put the focus on mining, not monuments, and there just may be a middle ground that emerges before too much more ore is extracted.