For Groundwater's Sake: Conservationists Demand Closure of Canyon Uranium Mine

Canyon Mine in 2013.
Canyon Mine in 2013. U.S. Forest Service
In the last three years, drilling has released close to 20 million gallons of radioactive groundwater into Canyon Mine, whose operations sit in a meadow surrounded by ponderosa pine forest south of the Grand Canyon.

That's about 20 million gallons more water than mining operators predicted when they first sought and received approval from regulators, including those at the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, to tap into uranium ore near the South Rim.

On Tuesday, four environmental conservation groups formally asked the state agency to shutter Canyon Mine, which has yet to produce any ore. They requested that the department not renew a key permit that expires at the end of August.

In a letter to Misael Cabrera, the director of the state DEQ, and Trevor Baggiore, director of the Water Quality Division, the groups pointed to the ongoing flooding of uranium-contaminated water as the reason to close the mine.

The groups — the Grand Canyon Chapter of the Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity, Grand Canyon Trust, and Wild Arizona — said that the state and the U.S. Forest Service have ignored warnings, dating back to 1986, about the risks that mining uranium near the South Rim poses to the area's groundwater, including the deep Redwall-Muav Aquifer.

"It truly is a problem that could have been avoided over 30 years ago," said Roger Clark, program director for the Grand Canyon Trust. "The state and federal agencies failed to ensure that the groundwater will be permanently protected, that the aquifers will remain uncontaminated," he added.

click to enlarge Energy Fuels Resources Inc. owns and operates Canyon Mine near the Grand Canyon. - U.S. FOREST SERVICE
Energy Fuels Resources Inc. owns and operates Canyon Mine near the Grand Canyon.
In 2009, the DEQ issued a General Aquifer Protection Permit for Canyon Mine, despite the agency's own admission that "facilities and sources whose emissions and discharges could have a significant environmental impact are not eligible to operate under a general permit."

The department renewed the permit in 2014 for another five years, without requiring any wells to monitor groundwater.

At the end of this month, instead of seeing state officials renew the permit again, these conservation groups would like the state to conduct new reviews and issue a different, singular permit — a more stringent Individual Aquifer Protection Permit that allows only for closing the mine and mitigating the damage it has done.

The groups want the DEQ to require Energy Fuels Inc., which owns and operates Canyon Mine, to immediately put an end to the groundwater flooding the mine and to create a financially secure mine-closure program.

Their letter also asks that the department require new studies and monitoring to figure out pollution levels in the deep aquifer and the springs connected to it.

click to enlarge Figures compiled by conservation groups using Energy Fuels Resources reports submitted to ADEQ show the increase in flooding in recent years. - THE SIERRA CLUB ET AL.
Figures compiled by conservation groups using Energy Fuels Resources reports submitted to ADEQ show the increase in flooding in recent years.
The Sierra Club et al.
The conservation groups sent their letter unsolicited, because the process for renewing the permit in question doesn't require a period for public comment. In a previous letter sent on August 2, the same groups requested that ADEQ hold a 30-day public-comment period and public hearings.

Erin Jordan, a spokesperson for ADEQ, said that the agency couldn't comment until it finished reviewing the letter.

Sandy Bahr, director of the Grand Canyon chapter of the Sierra Club, expressed hope that the department would "take a fresh look."

"It's always tough, because the mining interests have a lot of clout in Arizona," she said.

The letter laid out a brief history of the regulatory decisions that allowed mining to proceed, despite clear warnings.

In October 1986, Gary Ulinsky, a water-quality specialist with the Arizona Department of Health Services — this was before the days of ADEQ — sent a memo to his supervisor, expressing "concerns about the potential for radioactive contamination of the underlying aquifer."

"Usable quantities of water have been found in the area at depths of less than 150 feet," he wrote. Ulinsky also pointed out that more than half of the 18 bores drilled by Energy Fuels Nuclear, which owned the mine at the time, hit wet zones indicative of shallow aquifers above and throughout the area of the proposed uranium mine.

But Energy Fuels Nuclear claimed that exploratory drilling showed that "the mining zone is dry." And the Forest Service had already declared, in its final environmental assessment, that "the possibility of significant groundwater contamination is remote." It added that groundwater flows, "if they exist," would probably be "at least 1,000 feet below the lower extremities of the mine."

Low uranium prices delayed the mine's opening for about two decades, but time ultimately proved Ulinsky right.

In 2013, as miners sank the shaft at Canyon Mine 300 feet down, they pierced a shallow aquifer, forcing the mine to pump close to 300,000 gallons of water to an onsite containment pond.

The problem only worsened with time, as the mine shaft continued penetrating perched aquifers. In 2016, more than 985,000 gallons were pumped, and tests showed that the water was contaminated with uranium, according to Tuesday's letter.

In November of that year, the water pumped out of the mine tested at 130 parts per billion, a letter from Energy Fuels Resources to ADEQ shows. Those levels far exceeded aquifer and drinking water standards of a maximum of 30 parts per billion.

In 2017, the mine pumped close to 9 million gallons of contaminated water — so much that it didn't all fit in the containment pond, and the mine opted to spray some of the water into the surrounding Kaibab National Forest and truck the rest into Utah.

Last year, nearly 10 million gallons of water were pumped from the site.

"Groundwater flooding into the mine is now severe and ongoing," the groups' letter said, and concerns about the underlying Redwall-Muav aquifer being contaminated with radioactive water "are now urgent."

Clark, of the Grand Canyon Trust, described how mining causes contamination: The uranium ore is tightly locked into surrounding rock, in columns called breccia pipes. Miners sink vertical shafts adjacent to the ore, then put in tunnels laterally to reach it.

click to enlarge A cutaway showing the structure of uranium deposits typical to northern Arizona. - U.S. GEOLOGICAL SURVEY
A cutaway showing the structure of uranium deposits typical to northern Arizona.
U.S. Geological Survey
"It's that process, when you start opening up the stable rock mass and expose it to oxygen, that uranium oxidizes, and when uranium oxide forms, it's soluble in water," Clark said.

Energy Fuels Resources, which owns and operates Canyon Mine today, claims that nothing is wrong with the mine or the water flooding out of it.

Curtis Moore, a spokesperson for the company, told Phoenix New Times via email that "despite the hysterical claims by activists in the letter, there are zero issues with water at the site." He said the company handles all excess water by pumping it to a lined pond, from which it then evaporates.

The millions of gallons, he added, "may sound like a lot. It reality, it's a relatively small quantity of water for a mine and easily handled."

As for the contamination: “Any inference that there is any sort of water contamination at the site is just plain false," Moore said.

Moore did not directly respond to questions asking how the company squared claims of a dry mining zone with ongoing groundwater pumping and how the company was monitoring groundwater quality.
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Elizabeth Whitman was a staff writer for Phoenix New Times from March 2019 to April 2020.