We hate to sound like a broken record, but a moratorium on new uranium mining claims in the Grand Canyon watershed doesn't resolve two more important issues:
-- The Mining Act of 1872 that frustrates sound regulation of hard-rock mining.
-- An understaffed and underfunded state regulatory system that isn't up to the task of o verseeing the dozen or so mines that are likely to open, regardless of a moratorium.
As we've noted in this space before, the 1872 mining law survives only because of mining industry pressure on key senators to maintain the status quo. How else to explain the survival of a law that allows uranium and gold prospectors to file an unlimited number of claims to free minerals on lands they don't own in watersheds that modern science now tells us can't handle them?
Yet Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, in announcing Monday a 6-month extension of a uranium claims moratorium near the Grand Canyon, failed to mention the 1872 mining law, much less commit to its reform. But the law is the reason he has had to seek a blanket, all-or-nothing withdrawal -- it does not permit federal and state agencies to put limits on the number of mines in a region, even if they exceed a watershed's carrying capacity. All they can do is seek to control the environmental impacts of each mine.
COMING UP SHORT
And even then, Arizona comes up short. Gov. Jan Brewer condemned the Salazar announcement as ignoring assurances by the industry that uranium can be mined safely and securely. But she did not commit to upgrading the oversight at the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, which has fallen short in regulating just the single mine now operating on the North Rim.
As Cyndy Cole reported earlier this year, Denison Mines opened its Arizona 1 uranium mine in 2009, yet the first inspection came in September 2010. ADEQ inspected at the ground level only, not traveling into the mine, which reaches more than 1,252 feet below. Nevertheless, the inspection yielded what ADEQ deemed four "major" violations.
-- There were no pumps in the mine to eliminate any water there.
-- A test measuring the permeability of the rock in the mine hadn't been done.
-- A pipe was sticking through a lined pond that is intended to prevent groundwater contamination from ore or water pumped out of the mine.
-- Plans for the mine didn't match what inspectors found when they visited.
FEDERAL VIOLATIONS, TOO
In the same month that ADEQ inspectors arrived, federal inspectors concerned with worker safety cited Denison and contractors with air quality violations, failure to properly label power switches, equipment safety violations and a lack of firefighting equipment inspections. In all, the Mine Safety and Health Administration found 38 possible mine safety violations at the Arizona 1 Mine in 2010, many of which Denison is contesting.
That kind of record doesn't inspire confidence in either the mine operators or the regulators. Yet the preliminary Environmental Impact Statement noted that an estimated 11 mines in the proposed 1 million-acre withdrawal zone are due to open in the near future, with or without the moratorium. That's because the mines are either grandfathered or are on state or private inholdings -- the moratorium covers only federal lands.
With that kind of prospectus combined with the past violations, we would think Gov. Brewer would have boosted ADEQ's budget, especially if she is going to lobby for no moratorium at all -- in that case, the draft EIS projects more than 30 mines would open. But the ADEQ budget was cut, along with nearly every other department except Corrections.
A SHAMEFUL LEGACY
Looming over the debate is the travesty that was uranium mining during the Cold War era. Few precautions were taken to protect the people or the land from the devastating effects of airborne radiation, radioactive dust, contaminated soil, and downstream pollution. It is one of this country's most shameful public health and environmental legacies, and it should never be allowed to happen again.
To be fair, though, modern mining techniques in no way resemble those of 40 years ago. (Modern mines, for example, are underground and use no injected water in the extraction process.) The draft EIS rates the chances of a major accident at a mine during its typical 7-year lifespan at 13 percent -- a risk it considers "moderate." And even a major flood that pushes exposed ore into a deep or perched aquifer, if contained to one mine, would pose little risk to the Colorado River -- the water volume is so great that any radioactivity would be diluted to a level that would not be detectable.
But whether tourists hearing about a mine accident would be concerned enough to cancel a trip to the Grand Canyon is unknown. And given the greater automation of the new generation of uranium mines and the fact that the ore would be refined in Utah, the number of new jobs produced from even 30 mines might not be worth the considerable risk to the region's reputation, if not its water table.
SOONER, NOT LATER
We remain convinced, however, that a comprehensive overhaul of federal mining laws should be part and parcel of any moratorium around the Grand Canyon. And the governor and lawmakers need to get serious about uranium mine regulation -- or pass it off to a more specialized agency, such as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Given world prices, more uranium mining is coming to the Grand Canyon region sooner rather than later, and it's time federal and state officials took it seriously.