Activists Denounce Move to Permit Grand Canyon Uranium Mine

The Canyon Uranium Mine, south of Grand Canyon, in 2013. It is owned by Energy Fuels Resources.
The Canyon Uranium Mine, south of Grand Canyon, in 2013. It is owned by Energy Fuels Resources. U.S. Forest Service via Flickr
Arizona state officials are asking for the public's opinion on whether to give a new permit to a long-standing uranium mine near Grand Canyon.

Environmental activists who oppose the project say a permit should be issued to do only one thing: Close the mine.

On Wednesday, the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) opened the public comment period for a plan to give the Pinyon Plain Mine — which was previously named the Canyon Mine and is located about 10 miles from Grand Canyon National Park — a new "aquifer protection permit." The permit is required for mining facilities that discharge pollutants into groundwater and is one of many permits that the mine has to obtain in order to stay operational. The mine's aquifer protection permit, which is supposed to protect water supplies with monitoring and enforced pollution-protection policies, is up for renewal.

Back in 2019, environmental groups, who argue that the project threatens regional aquifers and springs, wrote a letter to the ADEQ demanding that the agency issue a narrowly tailored permit that only allowed for the mine to be cleaned up and closed. They didn't get what they asked for in the newly proposed draft permit.

“It’s inexcusable for Arizona regulators to gamble with the waters feeding the Grand Canyon’s precious springs,” Allison Melton, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a news release. “The dangerous problems of perpetual flooding and pollution will only worsen if uranium is mined. The department should stop catering to a deadly industry and close the mine before a bad situation gets worse.”

The mine was first built in the 1980s and has been a source of controversy and conflict ever since. But it's never actually extracted uranium ore, which is used to fuel nuclear-energy plants. At first, low uranium prices forced the mine's operators to halt production. In 2012, the Obama administration instituted a temporary 20-year ban on new uranium mining near Grand Canyon. But Energy Fuels, which owns the mine, managed to get the project exempted from the ban. Meanwhile, environmental groups and the Havasupai Tribe sued in federal court to stop the project, but lost. More recently, the company started conducting new drilling, which activists say has created millions of gallons of contaminated groundwater.

The ADEQ's draft executive summary for the proposal states that the agency's research "concludes that the natural hydrogeologic protections at the mine site are expected to prevent any potential impacts to groundwater resulting from mining operations."

However, environmentalists say that the mine is threatening to contaminate aquifers and springs in the Grand Canyon region. They also point to instances where mine operators mishandled contaminated water, such as spraying water into the Kaibab National Forest because their containment pond was at capacity.

With the new permit not yet finalized, environmental groups are renewing their calls for ADEQ to rewrite the draft permit to only authorize a closure of the mine.

"Just by virtue of what it is and where it is, a uranium mine inherently comes with contamination," Amber Reimondo, energy director for Grand Canyon Trust, told Phoenix New Times. "You risk contamination from that mine going to places you don't want to go, whether it be a groundwater aquifer or springs."

Caroline Oppleman, spokesperson for the ADEQ, countered that view in an email to New Times.

The Pinyon Plain project has been "studied, scrutinized, and litigated for over 30 years, resulting in extensive technical record," she said. "Based on this intensive review, ADEQ agrees with key conclusions that adverse impacts to groundwater from the facility are extremely unlikely... If all rule requirements have been met, ADEQ is required by law to issue the permit. The Individual APP will make Pinyon Plain Mine the most tightly regulated uranium mine in Arizona (within ADEQ jurisdiction), and the most heavily regulated conventional uranium mine in the United States."

Energy Fuels also did not respond to a request for comment.

The public comment period for the proposed ADEQ permit will close on August 7.

Update: After publication of this article, Energy Fuels sent the following statement:

"Needless to say, Energy Fuels disputes the claims on the Pinyon Plain mine by the activist groups in the strongest possible terms. The mine is heavily regulated by an array of federal and state agencies, and it is fully protective of the environment, including groundwater, air, wildlife, cultural resources, and of course the Grand Canyon several miles away. The Pinyon Plain mine is truly a clean energy asset, since the uranium it will responsibly produce will be used to generate clean, carbon-free nuclear energy, which is vital to addressing the threats of climate change and air pollution."
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Josh Kelety is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times. Previously, he worked as a reporter for the Inlander and Seattle Weekly.
Contact: Josh Kelety