Environmental groups are again pushing for the closure of the Canyon Uranium Mine south of Grand Canyon National Park after documents showed nearly 19 million gallons of contaminated groundwater have been pumped out of the mine in the last two years.
Activists with the Grand Canyon Trust and Sierra Club, holding signs and chanting, on Tuesday protested the mine in front of Coconino Community Collage, where officials with the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) were holding an unrelated meeting.
The push comes as ADEQ is reviewing whether to renew the Canyon Mine’s aquifer protection permit.
Amber Reimondo, Energy Program Director for the Grand Canyon Trust, said the Canadian-owned mine has had the permit since the late 1980s under the assumption that water infiltration into the mine was not an issue.
But Reimondo said the mine has been pumping water out of the mine since 2013 and the amount of water seems to be increasing.
“There was a significant increase in December of 2016,” said Alicyn Gitlin with the Sierra Club.
Over 985,000 gallons of water were pumped out in 2016, with about half of that occurring in December alone. The amount of water rose to nearly 9 million gallons in 2017 and to almost 10 million in 2018. For context, 9 million gallons equates to about 250,000 bathtubs.
Reimondo said this is worrying as the water contains high levels of uranium and arsenic.
And Gitlin said groups like the Grand Canyon Trust and Sierra Club are worried that water could pollute the area’s aquifers and springs, which are not only used by animals but also for drinking water in surrounding communities.
“These springs are so vital to life and so vital to the tribes. They’re a cultural importance and they’re a water source for the tribes. That’s where all the wildlife goes; that’s where hikers go. If those get contaminated, then game over,” Gitlin said. “[The Grand Canyon] is way too important to put at risk.”
Curtis Moore, Vice President for Marketing at Energy Fuels Resources Inc., disagreed with Gitlin’s dire assessment.
In an email, Moore said while the amount of water may sound like a lot, “in reality, it’s a relatively small quantity of water.”
After pumping the water out of the mine, Moore said the company evaporates it in lined ponds on the surface, adding the mine is in full compliance with all laws and regulations.
Moore said while the water does contain higher levels of arsenic and uranium, that is only in comparison to typical drinking water standards.
“I think most people would find it absurd to expect untreated water taken directly from any type of mine – uranium, copper, gold or otherwise – to be safe to drink. But, that is the logical extension of the activists’ claims,” Moore wrote. “In the mining world, this is a tiny quantity of water and relatively simple to manage.”
The water dispute comes as the ADEQ decides if it will renew the mine’s aquifer protection permit.
The permit, which lapsed in August, regulates how the mine monitors the surrounding area for groundwater contamination and what plans must be in place to prevent it.
So far, the Canyon Mine has operated under a general permit, which is used when current regulatory measures are satisfactory to protect ground water. Regulating the mine through an individual permit could require the creation of a plan specific to the Canyon Mine alone.
As part of the current general permit, the mine is required by ADEQ to monitor water quality in the mineshaft, test for how porous the rock layers at the bottom of the shaft are and line the bottom of the shaft to prevent water from escaping if need be.
In a letter sent to ADEQ last month, environmental groups pushed for the department to change that to an individual permit, the closure of the mine and a requirement for more monitoring wells. They also asked for ADEQ to hold a public listening meeting before a decision is made.
ADEQ spokesperson Erin Jordan said the process for renewing a general permit would generally not see such a public hearing. She said the department plans on making the permitting decision based on the science and data reviewed by the department’s technical experts.
Once that decision is made, interested parties will be notified, Jordan said.
Unlike the Pine Nut Uranium Mine north of the Grand Canyon, which was found to have been filled with apparent rainwater in 2009, officials believe the water entering the Canyon Mine is from nearby aquifers.
There are two aquifer systems in the area of the Grand Canyon, said Fred Tillman, the lead Grand Canyon hydrologist for the U. S. Geological Survey.
The first is an expansive regional aquifer about 3,000 feet below the ground while a series of smaller “perched” aquifers are located about 1,000 feet down, Tillman said. Most wells drawing groundwater for human consumption draw on the larger, lower aquifer.
The mine has drilled about 1,400 feet down, so Tillman said they believe the water is originating from one of these perched aquifers.
The USGS has one monitoring well near the mine drawing on the same aquifer the mine punctured, Tillman said. Despite that, he said the amount of water coming from the USGS well has not decreased even after water has spilled into the mine. That leads them to believe there is a substantial amount of water in the punctured aquifer.
One challenge is the lack of information on the hydrology of the area.
The USGS only has the one monitoring well near the mine, and that only reaches the perched aquifer. That means no one knows where groundwater in the area tends to flow or the water's speed.
The Canyon Mine does have one other well for drinking water reaching the lower aquifer, which USGS samples annually. Researchers also test surrounding springs, but Tillman said that only tells them so much because they don’t know where that water originates.
“There are a lot of unknowns,” he said, adding additional monitoring wells are really the only way to get a clear picture of the areas subterranean waterways.
Tillman said in the meantime, contamination of surrounding aquifers is unlikely. That’s because as the mine is open, the company will continually pump water out of the mine shaft.
Tillman said because mining has not yet started, there is also less ore exposed to water; active mining will likely expose more heavy metals.
Given those factors, the highest chance for surrounding aquifers to be impacted is after mining has occurred and after the mine itself has closed when no one is there to pump out the water, Tillman said.
“While the perched groundwater in the shaft is managed during active mining, we want to understand what may happen with the perched groundwater after mining is completed,” Tillman said. “That is why we plan on continuing to monitor groundwater chemistry in our [USGS well] throughout the mine's life cycle and after mine reclamation.”
Updated for correction on October 10.
Adrian Skabelund can be reached at the office at firstname.lastname@example.org, by phone at (928) 556-2261 or on Twitter @AdrianSkabelund.