Canyon creek still flows radioactive

Canyon creek still flows radioactive

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About two miles west of Grand Canyon Village sits a tall metal tower, fenced off from the public.

The walking trail along the canyon's South Rim detours around it, and hikers are told to avoid drinking the radioactive water that flows from it.

Formerly a copper mine beginning in 1983 and later one of the richest uranium deposits in the United States, the Orphan Mine once fed uranium mills near Tuba City and Grants, N.M., during the Cold War.

The mine went bust, along with the rest of the uranium industry, shortly after President Ronald Reagan opened the uranium market to global competition. By the 1990s, Russia was selling nuclear weapons to the United States to be downgraded into fuel for nuclear plants, said Michael Amundson, Northern Arizona University history professor and author.

Eleven uranium mines, in all, were operated on either side of the Grand Canyon at an investment of more than $200 million, said Kris Hefton, chief operating officer of the company that is proposing to drill for uranium on the Kaibab National Forest near Tusayan.

His company, VANE Minerals, and others exploring for uranium in the area have spent more than $6 million in northern Arizona since 2004, he wrote in testimony to a U.S. House subcommittee that was in Flagstaff on Friday.

The Orphan Mine is a tourist attraction, or "a symbol of the powerful attraction that brought early settlers westward," Wenrich wrote in testimony.

Grand Canyon National Park management typically doesn't bar the public from entering any of its other "tourist attractions," Amundson countered.

The mining industry's attitude of "trust us," hasn't changed, he said, and "the industry spin is the same as it always has been."

Claimed in 1893 as a copper mine on private property, the Orphan Mine was mined for uranium from 1956 to 1969, when it was owned by the Western Gold and Uranium and then the Cotter Corporation.

The former owners threatened to build a large hotel on their claim, and down into the Grand Canyon, if Congress and President John F. Kennedy didn't allow them to follow their ore and drill into the national park below-ground, Amundson said.

Congress and J.F.K. allowed it.

The former private inholding became part of the national park in 1987.

Radiological surveys showed gamma radiation at the Orphan Mine that is nearly 800 times higher than normal levels elsewhere around the Grand Canyon, wrote Chris Shuey, an environmental health specialist and a director at the Southwest Research and Information Center in Albuquerque.

One study conducted in the 1990s put uranium levels in Horn Creek during floods at three times the level allowed for drinking, under federal drinking water standards.

Horn and Salt Creek had the highest uranium levels of the 20 springs and seeps surveyed, Shuey wrote in testimony.


The Park Service posts signs along Horn Creek telling hikers not to drink the water.

"There is water in the bed of Horn Creek about half the time, but unfortunately it is radioactive, so don't drink it unless death by thirst is the only other option," advises one warning in a trail route description along Tonto Trail.

This warning is difficult to find on the Park Service's Web site, as it doesn't lie among other tips and suggestions for backcountry water sources.

And most references to the Orphan Mine are supposed to have been removed from the park's Web site, said Martha Hahn, chief of science and resource management at Grand Canyon National Park.

She was only allowed to provide specific information, she said, based on advice from lawyers.

The Park Service has spent more than $1 million investigating contamination at the Orphan Mine, including radioactive materials and heavy metals contamination.

Mine waste is present on the surface, as well as along the steep slopes of a mine that used to run 1,500 feet below the South Rim.

Further cleanup is likely to cost "several million" dollars, Hahn said.

Although mining operations ceased in 1969 and the former private property became part of the national park in 1987, it has still not been determined what company is responsible for cleanup of the Orphan Mine.

Cyndy Cole can be reached at 913-8607 or at

Is modern uranium mining safe?

The most contentious question about the resurgence of uranium mining goes to whether the mining will poison an aquifer, the Grand Canyon, or tributaries flowing into it, adding to the wastes created by a large tailings pile sitting along the Colorado River in Moab.

"The environmental footprint of these mines is small and short-lived," said Karen Wenrich, a geologist formerly of the U.S. Geological Survey and International Atomic Energy Agency.

She advocates nuclear power over fossil fuel as a way to curb the United States' foreign oil demands and greenhouse gas emissions.

Conservationists assert that the potential and unknown cumulative impacts of a number of uranium mines across the Colorado Plateau could lead to irreversible aquifer pollution or pollution.

This would be doubly the case, they argue, if the environmental impacts of each proposed mine are analyzed without weighing the impacts from every other mine.


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