If uranium mining happens again on the Colorado Plateau, it will be nothing like the industry that left thousands of contaminated sites, tripled death rates among miners and caused the biggest radioactive spill in U.S. history.
Those are the assertions of an industry backer and an officer of one of three companies proposing to explore for uranium in the Kaibab National Forest south of the Grand Canyon, in what would be the first resurgence of the uranium industry here since the 1970s.
"The industry has come a long way from the time when tailings were left unprotected and allowed to be transported by water and wind into nearby streams and rivers," said Karen Wenrich, a geologist formerly with the U.S. Geological Survey and the International Atomic Energy Agency. "This is nothing like the mines on the Navajo Nation."
Three Democratic members of a U.S. House subcommittee on national parks and public lands held a half-day hearing at Flagstaff City Hall on Friday, where they queried researchers and one mining company official for an audience of about 200.
The majority of the audience was opposed to mining.
SUPPORT FOR LEGISLATION
The purpose of the hearing was largely to rally support for a House bill to put about 1 million acres — in House Rock Valley, the Arizona Strip west of the Kaibab National Forest and the Tusayan section of that forest — off limits to new uranium claims.
"Until we have learned to safely mine and process this material, there is no place to be moving forward with these mines," said U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Tucson, sponsor of the bill.
Miners could still work existing claims, of which there are now more than 2,800 in the Tusayan District alone. No mines have opened at this point.
One company, VANE Minerals, was approved in January for exploratory drilling on as many as 39 sites on the Tusayan Ranger District, including some less than two miles from Grand Canyon National Park.
Three environmental groups have sued to overturn that approval, saying the Forest Service should have done more environmental analysis first.
No matter the outcome, yearslong environmental review would be required before any company could begin mining on forest land, said Corbin Newman, new regional forester for U.S. Forest Service in the Southwest.
Pressed by U.S. Reps. Grijalva, Ed Pastor, D-Phoenix and Grace Napolitano, D-Calif., Newman said his Forest Service employees have no choice but to allow mining both under law and a policy that the forest must be open to multiple uses, including breccia pipe mining.
A breccia pipe is a tube of uranium that can be 300 feet in diameter and as deep as 3,000 feet.
If VANE Minerals were to mine, it proposes below-ground mining that is above the water table.
"We feel that what we're doing is not a risk to groundwater contamination or soil," VANE Chief Operating Officer Kris Hefton said.
He acknowledged the many mistakes made by others on the Navajo Nation.
"I'm not talking about the industry of 50 years ago that impacted the Navajo Nation or others in the Four Corners area," he said. "We ask you to judge our industry on its current performance rather than on past, unrelated events."
A number of scientists, environmentalists, the superintendent of the Grand Canyon and tribal members are not accepting the mining companies' assertions, saying there has been no such thing as safe uranium mining in the past.
"The impacts on the region's seeps and springs may last for thousands of years," said Larry Stevens, an ecologist with the Grand Canyon Wildlands Council. "The long-term consequences and the uncertainties are what I'm most concerned about."
With 12,000 breccia pipes discovered regionally, the cumulative impact of widespread uranium mining could cause subtle changes that would ultimately degrade the environment, Stevens said.
"I don't think you could say there will not be an impact," said Chris Shuey, an environmental health specialist who is conducting health studies around former mining sites in Church Rock, New Mexico, where radiation levels in some places are 400 times higher than average levels.
When tailings from a uranium mill burst through a dam there, Church Rock became the site of the largest accidental release of radioactive wastes in the United States.
Diabetes rates, autoimmune disease, kidney disease and birth defects have also been higher than average in Navajo communities with abandoned mines, he has found.
There has been no comprehensive study of public health in uranium mine communities on Navajo lands.
IMPACT ON TOURISM
Grand Canyon Superintendent Steve Martin calls uranium mining a "big concern," or one that is a 10 or above on a scale of 1 to 10.
"I think we have to have a process that evaluates the cumulative impact, on the Grand Canyon, of any of these activities," he said.
Coconino County Supervisor Carl Taylor raised questions about uranium mining's potential impacts on tourism to the Grand Canyon, as tourism is a top industry, as did Rob Elliott, owner of Arizona Raft Adventures.
"Uranium contamination of any amount in the Grand Canyon could be devastating to our business," due to the news media, he said, even if the risk was very small.
Leaders for five tribes raised questions about the impact of uranium mining, from water quality to spiritual impacts on the Canyon, which was once the home of some ancestors.
"They promise the money. It looks good. Then they go bankrupt or they leave and we're left with the cleanup," said Ona Segundo, chairwoman of the Kaibab Paiute Tribe.
Near Tuba City, waste dumped from an unregulated mill is within one-quarter mile from the only water source for the village of Lower Moencopi. The water is used for crops, drinking and spiritual ceremonies.
On the Navajo Nation, more than 1,000 mines remain unfilled. Some are now swimming holes and ponds for cattle.
"It is unconscionable that anyone would allow uranium mining to be restarted anywhere while we are still suffering," Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr. said. "I cannot believe the industry is going to come in and mine uranium and then clean up. I cannot believe that."
Cyndy Cole can be reached at 913-8607 or at email@example.com.