A uranium mine just south of Grand Canyon National Park is again at the center of controversy as the mine’s owner seeks a new aquifer protection permit.
The Pinyon Plain Mine, previously called the Canyon Mine, is owned by Canada-based Energy Fuels Resources and is not currently operating, largely because of the current low price of uranium.
But as the company seeks an individual aquifer protection permit, environmental groups and the Havasupai tribe are pushing the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality to deny the application.
A public comment period for the permit application is set to end this weekend. Comments can be submitted to the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality online using email or through the post office before Saturday.
Activists have long worried that the mine's proximity to the Grand Canyon means it is contaminating groundwater in the area, with the further potential to poison springs throughout the Grand Canyon -- including the Havasupai tribes’ sole source of water.
Officials with Energy Fuels Resources have consistently denied that the mine poses any threat to groundwater resources. And that was a message that Energy Fuels Resources President and CEO Mark Chalmers repeated to the Arizona Daily Sun this week.
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“We operate at the highest standards. Regardless of what a number of people say, we operate at the highest standards, and we will always operate at the highest standards,” Chalmers said. “The ADEQ supports this application, the Forest Service supports the application. Those are the regulatory bodies that we have to deal with and they support it, because we do things right, we don't do things wrong.”
Opponents of the mine have pointed to millions of gallons of contaminated water that Energy Fuels has had to pump out of the mine after drilling pierced a section of aquifer in 2016. Records have shown that some years workers have had to pump as many as 10 million gallons of water contaminated with uranium and arsenic out of the mine.
Opponents have also said Energy Fuels has not always disposed of that waste water properly, an allegation the company has denied.
Amber Reimondo, energy director for the Grand Canyon Trust, said it is for those reasons that the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality should deny the individual permit for the mine.
“The fact that it's taking on groundwater when it wasn't expected to, and groundwater in a uranium mine is so dangerous, the mine needs to be closed down. They should deny the permit, and only issue an individual aquifer protection permit for the purposes of the closure and cleanup of the mine,” she said.
Reimondo said Energy Fuels’ application for an individual permit application comes after the renewal for a general permit for the mine was ended last year by the state. That decision on the part of ADEQ was made after a significant push by environmental groups, the Havasupai and a letter from Rep. Tom O’Halleran and the Arizona Indigenous Caucus.
Officials with Energy Fuels, however, characterized those events differently, insisting that they voluntarily decided to stop seeking the renewal of a general permit and instead pursue an individual permit. They also pointed out that the company still holds a general permit for the mine while the determination whether to award the individual permit is made.
Still, Chalmers wouldn’t speculate if he believed their application would be successful.
“At the end of the day, the ADEQ is the one who issues the permits, so I’m not going to say whether they issue it or not. But I do know that we’ve done more than just about any other mine would be required to do,” Chalmers said.
Unlike a general permit, an individual permit is unique to the specific mine to which it applies. That could mean state regulators placing more stringent requirements on the mine should they approve the permit, but Reimondo said that’s not a certainty. Regulators could use their discretion to draw up an individual permit that is lax, she said.
Still, the individual permit does require a public comment period and offers the possibility of a public hearing, both things that a general permit renewal does not provide.
And for opponents of the mine, the individual permit might hold yet another risk.
“The downside is that an individual permit, unlike the general permit, is permanent. So the general permit had to be renewed every five years, and didn't have opportunity for public comment. But this one, while it does have opportunity for public comment, whatever we get we're essentially stuck with,” Reimondo said.
While the public comment period is scheduled to end Saturday, a virtual public hearing is planned for Monday at 6 p.m.
At the federal level, uranium mining appears to be on the back foot as the Biden administration removed it from the list of critical minerals just last month.
And the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Grand Canyon Protection Act earlier this year, a measure that would make permanent an Obama-era ban on uranium mining near the Grand Canyon. Similar legislation has also been introduced in the U.S. Senate.
As an existing mine, Pinyon is one of just a few sites that would be exempt from that ban, should it pass.
Adrian Skabelund can be reached by phone at (928) 556-2261, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @AdrianSkabelund.