Uranium mining ban near Grand Canyon all politics, no science

On January 9, 2012, the Obama administration announced a 20-year ban on new mining claims on public land near Grand Canyon National Park. The ban will not affect about 3,000 existing claims in the area. A principal stated reason for the ban was to forestall possible contamination of Colorado River water resulting from a mining accident. But uranium contamination from an accident is extremely unlikely according to a study by the Arizona Geological Survey:

To examine one potential impact of uranium mining in the Grand Canyon region on uranium levels in Colorado River water, Dr. Jon Spencer (AZGS Senior Geologist) and Dr. Karen Wenrich (Consulting Geologist) posed a hypothetical , worst-case, scenario involving an accidental spill of the entire contents of an ore truck hauling 30 metric tons (66,000 pounds) of uranium ore containing one percent uranium (ore grades in northern Arizona are typically somewhat lower), followed by flash-flood transport and dissolution of all spilled uranium into the Colorado River. In this scenario, the ore is pulverized and dissolved within a single year, releasing 300 kg of uranium directly into river waters.

The result: uranium concentration of Colorado River waters would increase from 4.00 to 4.02 ppb (parts per billion by mass); an increase of just one half of one percent that would be masked by natural uranium-concentration variations as determined by measurements reported in a recent U.S. Geological Survey study. Furthermore, the uranium content of Colorado River waters would remain well below the 30 ppb Maximum Contaminant Level set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for safe drinking water.

The small change in dissolved uranium content of Colorado River waters as a result of this hypothetical accident is due to the very large annual volume of river water that passes through the Grand Canyon and the approximately 60 metric tons of dissolved uranium that is naturally carried by the river each year.

The study is: Spencer, J.E. and Wenrich, K, 2011, Breccia-pipe uranium mining in the Grand Canyon region and implications for uranium levels in Colorado River water. Arizona Geological Survey OFR-11-04, 13 p. It may be downloaded here.

A U.S. Geological Survey report issued in 2010, provided data showing that the river carries an average of 120,000 lbs (a range of 40-80 tons) of uranium down the Grand Canyon every year. The uranium is apparently eroded from normal crustal concentrations over the large drainage area of the Colorado River basin.

Ref: Hydrological, Geological, and Biological Site Characterization of Breccia Pipe Uranium Deposits in Northern Arizona, Edited by Andrea E. Alpine, USGS SIR 2010-5025.

Besides eliminating hundreds of potential jobs, this decision denies the U.S. resources to produce electricity. This decision seems to be part of Obama’s plan to make energy costs “skyrocket” to make green energy appear more attractive.

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  1. It’s not radioactive waste that’s the problem. Mining and miners have a very poor history on public land. Look at aerial photos of the gas fracking drill sites clustered on BLM land throughout the West. Look at the piles of tailings and big dangerous holes in the ground that have never been cleaned up. Look at the roads, litter and destroyed water sources associated with mines and drilling on public land. No, Mr. DuHamel, the Obama Administration’s ban on uranium mining near the Grand Canyon is a very good decision based on factual information and considers the destructive irresponsible mining history on public land.

  2. Under the 1872 Mining Law, mining companies are not required to pay royalties to the public for the mineral resources that they extract. Not only are taxpayers not properly compensated for their natural resources, but they are frequently left to foot the bill for environmental cleanup. Congress must pass legislation such as Rep. Ed Markey’s H.R. 3446 to solve this problem. However, Secretary Salazar’s withdrawal will stop additional companies from profiting off this antiquated system while endangering a national treasure. 

  3. So–wait a minute– is “politics” a bad thing when it protects one if the most important natural treasures we have in our country, the Grand Canyon? And are a few hundred jobs (if we accept that exaggeration) in mining really a good trade off for the tens of thousands of jobs that might be lost in tourism when this national park is turned into a strip mine?

  4. Mike, the National Park will not be turned into a strip mine.  The ban in question deals with land outside, but adjacent to the park.

    1. And would you be so blase’ about the same mine located adjacent to your house?  It’ll ruin your view, property values, water and quality of life, but hey, at least some jobs will be created, right? 
      Having worked in the nuclear industry, this is the rare case where I agree with the president-uranium is good only for powering incredibly dirty power plants, making stupendously toxic bullets and mortar rounds once its been depleted and fueling the nuclear arms race by selling the plutonium bleedoff from the power rods to arms manufacturers.  If you know of other, less-destructive uses for this element, feel free to post them, but I doubt it will sway the opinions of those who know the facts.

  5. The issue I have with further mining within a national park region is this: We do not have to disrupt or destroy the beauty of the Grand Canyon, or other national treasures when there are plenty of god-forsaken places that are nearly lifeless, such as MANY areas of Nevada, and other less spectacular regions. The contaminants in our water (I am from San Diego) are out of control, and adding more simply because existing levels vs a small rise is considered to be ‘negligible’ by an Arizona Scientist simply compounds the problem of industry totally disrespecting the purity of water sources. Fracking is currently number one with a bullet as far as water table and drinking water contamination. While I agree (if the science is correct) that adding .02PPB uranium to a water source SOUNDS fine, it is another chemical that we let slip into our water. I know AZ hates CA, but please don’t start poisoning the well. This is about industry regulation, and the roping in of out of control companies that do not care about the health of the communities that let them operate where they do. So yes, it is about politics, but I will take political decisions over a scientist that says “dumping 300KG’s of Uranium” in my water source any day of the week. 

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