Public outcry pushed an Arizona environmental agency to require Canyon Mine, a uranium mine near the Grand Canyon, to apply for a more strict aquifer protection permit.
The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) denied a general permit for Canyon Mine, owned by Canadian-based Energy Fuels Resources, after reviewing feedback from the public and reviewing the years of documents available on the mine. Public comment cited allegations of cultural and environmental damage to water stores, wildlife and land to demand the department issue the stricter permit for the purpose of closing down the mine in September 2019.
Curtis Moore, spokesman for Energy Fuels, said the company denies any wrongdoing or damage to the aquifer or wildlife. The decision released last Thursday will require the mine to apply for the new permit, ADEQ officials said.
“We are also hopeful that this process can once and for all prove to skeptical members of the public that the Canyon Mine will be highly regulated and operate in a manner that is completely protective of human health and the environment, including creating no threats to groundwater or the Grand Canyon,” Moore said via email.
Matthew Putesoy, the vice chairman of the Havasupai Tribe, said ADEQ made the correct decision to deny the renewal of the mine’s general permit, but only supported the department's move if it led to the closure of the mine.
“Our traditional land is being contaminated and the R-Aquifer, which feeds Havasu Creek and provides life to our people in the canyon, is at risk. Why take that risk?” Putesoy said via email. “Once the R-Aquifer is contaminated, Havasu Creek is contaminated and our life in the canyon will then be contaminated.”
Trevor Baggiore, ADEQ’s water quality division director, said swapping between the mine’s former general permits and the new individual permits will help provide a central location for the 30 years of documents tied to the mine. The individual permit will allow the agency to enforce any violations if the mine is out of compliance with the permits it already has.
Additionally, the individual permit requires Energy Fuels to set aside money to close the mine properly if needed.
Baggiore said they did hundreds of hours of researching through the years of documents before requiring the mine to apply for new permits.
“We have done extensive research and we’ve considered the public concerns expressed. Out of abundance of caution, we asked the owner to apply for an individual permit,” Baggiore said.
Canyon Mine is not currently mining for uranium, although the company continues to have the equipment ready to begin production.
The low value of U.S. uranium has kept Energy Fuels from being able to produce uranium ore at any of their mines across the country, including Canyon Mine just south of the Grand Canyon National Park.
Domestic uranium companies, including Energy Fuels, have pushed the federal government to intervene and prop up the domestic mining industry to help the low cost of uranium.
Those against Canyon Mine say not enough is known about the region’s aquifer systems to allow the risk of it contaminating underground water that benefits the Havasupai Tribe. Additionally, many believe their above-ground water stores can infect birds and animals that are not blocked by the fence around the mine's water storage in the high desert.
Energy Fuels has continually said the company's actions have not contaminated groundwater, and that animals are not being infected. ADEQ currently requires water quality monitoring, testing the permeability of rock in the shaft, and an annual report to ADEQ of activities and analytical results.
The mine has a long history of controversy, including a recent lawsuit from the Havasupai Tribe that failed to close the mine. Canyon Mine sits within a 1,562-mile moratorium placed by the Obama administration to prevent anyone from filing new mining claims until 2032. Canyon Mine was grandfathered in and could operate under the right economic conditions.
In September 2019, members of the public protested the permits at an ADEQ public hearing. Groups like the Grand Canyon Trust, Center for Biological Diversity and Sierra Club joined in the opposition to the mine at the meeting. Those activist groups and members of the public pushed the department to adopt the individual permit for the purpose of shutting down the mine.
Alicyn Gitlin, an organizer for the Sierra Club's Grand Canyon chapter, felt it unlikely that the department was going to take action to close the mine, citing the department's review of mine documents that said the mine's impact on water supplies are "extremely unlikely." Gitlin said science is not settled on whether or not the mine could cause water contamination, and doesn't want to take the risk.
“I’m not hopeful that they’re going to protect the groundwater and protect wildlife,” Gitlin said. “They’re really writing off a lot of threats from this mine as non-issues. It’s really disheartening and unfortunate.”
Putesoy said the tribe will continue to stay in this fight for their people's safety.
"The water is our life," Putesoy said. "We will fight to protect it. We will fight to keep it clean."
While continuing to deny the allegations against the mine, Moore re-emphasized the emission-free benefits of uranium energy production.
“The health and environmental benefits of this mine far outweigh any far-fetched and implausible risks that activists often complain about,” Moore said.
ADEQ will review any new information available during this new application’s process, which will include a public comment period, Baggiore said. He expected a decision to be made next year.
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