Last Day to Comment on Uranium Mine Expansion in Proposed Bears Ears Monument

Today is the last day the U.S. Bureau of Land Management will accept public comment about a proposal to expand the Daneros uranium mine in southern Utah. The mine, which began excavating uranium in 2010, is located in the heart of the proposed Bears Ears National Monument, at a site about five miles west of Natural Bridges National Monument.

According to the BLM, "total ore production for the life of the mine would increase from 100,000 tons over 7 years to 500,000 tons over 20 years [and] total mine disturbance would increase from 4.5 acres to 46 acres."

Though the Daneros mine is on standby, having temporarily shut down operations after the price of uranium dropped in 2012, those who favor the expansion plan say that once the mine becomes operational again, it will provide a substantial new source of uranium for its owner, Lakewood, Colorado-based Energy Fuels Inc. (The price of uranium tends to fluctuate quite a bit, and it's not atypical for mining operations to go on standby when prices are low.)

Critics of the plan, however, say the costs substantially outweigh any potential benefits.

Anne Mariah Tapp, energy program director of the Grand Canyon Trust, an environmental group that opposes the plan, notes that the BLM only performed an environmental assessment (EA), which is less comprehensive than a full environmental-impact statement (EIS). Had the BLM done the latter, Tapp believes, it would have had to reject the plan based on sizable environmental concerns and the projected impact on areas of cultural significance to local Native American tribes.

Located just north of the Arizona-Utah border, the proposed 1.9-million-acre Bears Ears National Monument includes at least 100,000 Native American antiquities. These include stone buildings and villages, granaries, hand-carved pictographs, and many revered natural landmarks — among them the Bears Ears Buttes, the Manti-La Sal National Forest, the Dark Canyon Wilderness area, and the Cedar Mesa plateau, which overlooks the Valley of the Gods.

Last year, the Bears Ears Inter-tribal Coalition — which consists of the Hopi, Navajo, Uintah and Ouray Ute, Ute Mountain Ute, and Zuni tribes — formally asked the White House to invoke the Antiquities Act and declare the area a national monument, in part because so many of its antiquities are being desecrated and looted. While the plan has received pushback from a handful of local Republican legislators, recent polling shows that 71 percent of people in Utah support the monument.

It's unclear whether President Barack Obama will designate the Bears Ears monument before he leaves office in January, though earlier this summer, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell made a historic visit to the area, where she spoke at length about the need to permanently protect it.

Because mining is generally prohibited inside national monuments and only existing mine claims are able to be grandfathered in, the obvious question is whether Energy Fuels foresaw the monument designation and rushed to expand the mine. Tapp says she doesn't think this is the case, because the company first filed an application for expansion years before the monument was proposed.

That said, the fact that the area is being considered for national-monument status should give the BLM pause, Tapp says. "Most of the time, BLM approves these things. But I think there's a need for them to be more cautious and thoughtful than they have been in the past. It really is a significant expansion, and both environmental justice and [environmental] impacts were basically just dismissed."

The uranium mined at Daneros is relatively low-grade, existing in concentrations within the ore at levels of about 0.22 to 0.28 percent, according to the Salt Lake Tribune. For this reason, mining it requires removing raw ore and then trucking it through the proposed monument area to the White Mesa Mill for processing.

"We're concerned about transportation issues and having trucking routes through main thoroughfares of the Bears Ears Region," Tapp says, explaining that she is not convinced the BLM took into account the impact of trucking on the surrounding area.

On top of that, she adds, White Mesa Mill itself is a huge environmental threat. As New Times has reported, environmentalists have been warning for years that the outdated liners of the mill's containment pools are very likely leaking radioactive waste into the local water table.

Says Tapp: "[There has] been a lack of careful analysis. And I think it's important for the BLM to be more on top of those issues, and to be more of a regulatory agency for southeastern Utah, rather than just a permitting agency."

Today is the last day the BLM will accept public comments about the expansion plan. Written comments can be e-mailed to [email protected]
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Miriam is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Miriam Wasser