Just 10 miles south of the entrance to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon is a giant hole in the ground where miners are hoping to strike it big with one of Earth’s rarest but deadliest elements—uranium. Despite it only being about 17 acres in size, the Canyon Mine extends over 1,400 feet down into the Earth’s surface and critics worry it could scar the Grand Canyon itself and pollute a nearby tribe’s water.
Mining has been prevalent in the region surrounding the Grand Canyon since the early 1900s. During the atomic era of the 1950s, it was a little bit like the Wild West—interest in uranium mining soared and it evolved into a highly unregulated industry, where people were walking around with Geiger counters and shovels, hoping to sell it to the government for profit.
As the price of uranium plummeted, so did interest in mining the region. However, in the mid-2000s, there was a massive market spike in the mineral, and the craze was back on. While better regulated, by the end of the decade there were over a thousand new uranium mining claims in the area surrounding the Grand Canyon.
In 2012, unsure of the environmental consequences of uranium mining in the region, the Department of the Interior put a 20-year ban on staking new claims—effectively banning all new mining activities near the Grand Canyon.
Conservationists were ecstatic about this. But there was just one small problem.
Using a mining law from 1872 that critics call outdated, the USFS determined that miners who had established “valid existing rights,” to mine before the ban could continue to do so. To have such rights, a miner must have, before the ban, discovered and unearthed a “valuable mineral deposit”—one that can be extracted, removed, and marketed at a profit.
The USFS found one mine to possess “valid existing rights,” and to thereby be exempt from the ban—Canyon Mine.
The 2012 ban continued to draw scrutiny from both sides. Conservationists argued the ban should be made permanent, meanwhile, the Trump administration took steps to potentially eliminate it and make uranium more lucrative as a geopolitical strategy.
As a result, Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) introduced the Grand Canyon Centennial Protection Act to the House on Feb. 26, 2019, a bill that seeks to permanently ban all new mining in the region and protect the Grand Canyon from industrial interests.
The bill passed the House via a partisan vote, and has been introduced into the Senate, where it is expected to pass as well.
While conservationists view this as a good first step, the singular issue remains—Canyon Mine, which courtesy of the USFS decision in 2012, would remain exempt from the permanent ban.
To get at the controversy of Canyon Mine, you don’t need to go too far down the shaft. In fact, even the name of the mine itself is a point of contention.
The mine, which was named Canyon Mine across several owners and several decades, was recently renamed by its owner, Energy Fuels, to the Pinyon Planes Mine.
Outlets have speculated that this was done to draw less attention to the mine. Curtis Moore, the VP of marketing and corporate development for the company, confirmed this, when he told The Daily Beast that this was done, “because conservationists were making it seem like we were mining in the Grand Canyon, which we are not.”
Taylor McKinnon of the Center for Biological Diversity, a conservation nonprofit, laughed this off: “They named it Canyon Mine in the first place because of how close it is to the Grand Canyon—not us,” he said. He added—“It’s funny, I don’t think Pinyon Planes is even a real place.”
As you delve deeper into the mine, the story only becomes more complex, obscure, and flat-out strange.
Get this: In the 35 years it has been operational, there has never been uranium ore extracted from the mine. While this is mostly due to a lack of demand for uranium, among other factors, that doesn’t mean the mine isn’t filled with other problems—or at the very least, the potential for catastrophic ones.
For starters, the mine is operating under a USFS Environmental Impact Statement, as required by the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) dating back to 1986, one that was originally challenged by the Havasupai Tribe in court. Despite the bans and the increase in knowledge about the hydrology of the Grand Canyon, as well as calls from conservationists and local tribes to conduct a new study, the USFS has refused to do so. A Federal Appellate court upheld this decision by the USFS in 2013.
Moore defended the decision and said that having a new study done was unnecessary. “It’s like getting a permit for your house,” Moore told The Beast. “We were already approved—why get a new one?”
McKinnon, of course, sees it another way. Citing that they haven’t extracted any uranium, he laughed, “If each EIS took 5 years, they could’ve done four by now. The truth is,” he added, “they don’t want to delve into the facts and the truth because they’re afraid.”
However, in 2017, the inevitable happened. Despite the original environmental impact statement from 1986 that claimed the mine “would have no significant impact,” on the environment or the public interest,” and also suggested that “flooding was nearly impossible,” Energy Fuels pierced an aquifer in the mine, and water came gushing out.
How “bad” this situation is depends on who you ask.
For environmentalists, it’s as close to disaster as it gets. Several groups including the Center for Biological Diversity have called for the shutting-down and closure of the mine as a result of the flooding and the company’s response to it, which according to conservationists and the Arizona Daily Sun involved spraying contaminated water into forests and loading water into trucks to be taken to Utah. However, Energy Fuels doesn’t see a problem.
In fact, when The Daily Beast mentioned the flooding to Energy Fuels, Moore defended it, claiming it was “done on purpose,” “all part of the plan,” and “in compliance with the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) and the USFS.”
Moore explained that the aquifer they pierced is perched, isolated, separate from the aquifers environmentalists are most afraid of being contaminated—groundwater aquifers—and that there is “no evidence,” and “no chance” that it currently is impacting or in the future will impact the Grand Canyon.
Of course, environmentalists are already concerned it is happening. McKinnon said, “No one can assure us or them that this aquifer which was pierced was not connected to the Grand Canyon springs—which could both drain the springs and contaminate the groundwater.”
While Moore said they have monitors to test the groundwater, environmentalists insist there should be more extensive monitoring done, especially since, “ADEQ has acknowledged that if there were a uranium leak into the groundwater, there is no plan to fix it,” said McKinnon.
“The bottom line,” McKinnon argues, “is that they’ve created a flooding problem. The water flooding the mine and being pumped out exceeds EPA standards for dissolved uranium and arsenic. There are no guarantees in the long run—there are no guarantees that mining won’t harm the deep aquifer in the near future, even if it isn’t harmed now.”
Moore argues that the flooding has been drastically reduced in recent years, and that comparing it to EPA standards for drinking water, as environmentalists frequently do, is irrelevant.
“No one is suggesting you drink the water,” Moore intoned.
As of now and as a result of these floods, the ADEQ is actually in the midst of developing a new draft Aquifer Protection Permit for Pinyon Planes Mine, which is expected to be out by April 26th.
While this could lead to the end of Pinyon Planes Mine, conservationists aren’t getting their hopes up.
“We petitioned to have them make a closure permit, but we doubt that will happen,” McKinnon said.
For Moore, shutting down the mine would be a huge mistake. He views uranium as a path towards a greener, carbon-free future. “These activists are antinuclear for some reason,” he said, adding, “even though it is the best way to address climate change.” He went as far as to assert that “all of these claims [made by conservationists] are not based in science or reality.”
For conservationists, they are just hoping this bill passes the Senate, although it will be the first battle in what they view as a long war.
“The passage of this legislation would demonstrate the need to deal with Canyon Mine even more forcefully,” Taylor McKinnon said. He added, “But the bill itself, it’s narrow. It’s important but there’s a lot more that needs to be done, including a multi-level, multi-billion-dollar clean-up.”