Last Week to Comment on Air-Quality Permits for Uranium Mines Near Grand Canyon

Whether you're concerned about the impact uranium mining has on the air quality of the Grand Canyon or think the issue has been blown way out of proportion, you have one week left to share your thoughts with the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality before the agency renews permits for three uranium mines in the Kaibab National Forest.

ADEQ released revised draft air-quality-control permits for Canyon Mine, Arizona 1 Mine, and EZ Mine earlier this summer, after suspending the permitting process in January following a radioactive dust scare around Pinenut Mine, another uranium mine in the area that became inactive late last year.

Colorado-based Energy Fuels Inc., which operates all four of the mines, reported levels of radioactivity four times higher than normal around Pinenut in December 2015, attributing the aberration to a spike in radioactive dust outside of the cordoned-off mine area. Both Energy Fuels and ADEQ stated at the time that though the levels were higher than normal, it didn't pose a health risk. But critics weren't so sure, noting that the dust particles can travel long distances.

In the eight months since the proposed permits were suspended, Timothy S. Franquist, director of ADEQ's Air Quality Division, says the agency rewrote the permits, adding enhanced dust-control measures and requirements for more testing.

"Based on that situation [at Pinenut], we wanted to add some additional triggers, like reducing stockpiles on site, the addition of wind barriers, and covering stock piles," Franquist says. "The key is that any time we find a better process to reduce dust emissions or any air pollution, we like to stick that in the permit."

Despite the permit enhancements, some environmentalists remain unsatisfied.
"While we appreciate the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality suspending the permit-renewal process earlier this year after increased uranium levels were found in the soil near the Pinenut Mine and including some additional requirements for sampling and dust abatement, it does not give us confidence that these mines will not pollute the air, land, and water," Sandy Bahr, chapter director of the Arizona Sierra Club, writes in an e-mail to New Times.

"Over the years, we have repeatedly been told not to worry about contamination from these uranium mines, but each time there is a study or monitoring, we find out that there is even more about which to be concerned," Bahr adds. 

The Sierra Club, along with the Grand Canyon Trust and the Center for Biological Diversity, recently commented jointly to ADEQ about the new air-quality permits, urging the agency not to renew them.

"In the six years since ADEQ last issued these air quality permits, information has emerged demonstrating the extreme threat uranium mining poses to the Grand Canyon region," the groups write. "ADEQ cannot fulfill its responsibility to protect the environment, the plants and animals, and the health of the people of Arizona and permit these mines."

To bolster their claim, the groups point to a 2010 U.S. Geological Survey report that found heightened levels of uranium and arsenic in areas disturbed by uranium mining, and also to a series of new studies about medical risks to humans who are exposed to radioactive dust.

"Fine particulate matter is difficult to contain, readily inhaled, readily suspended and transported by wind, and can contain many heavy metals as well as uranium. Dust associated with uranium mining has been found to carry arsenic, lead, copper, cadmium, nickel, strontium, and cobalt, as well as uranium. Fine particulate matter is of concern because it is small enough to enter the blood stream when inhaled and has been linked to cancer, neurotoxicity, immunotoxicity, cardiotoxicity, and increased morbidity/mortality," they write.

Of particular concern is dust that flies off trucks transporting uranium ore. The groups contend that ADEQ should require that mining companies "contain dust more securely than with tarps." (ADEQ's Timothy Franquist says tarps are the industry standard.)

"ADEQ is confident that the Energy Fuels Resources revised draft air-quality permits, for which we currently are seeking public input, will ensure that public health and the environment are protected," ADEQ spokeswoman Caroline Oppleman tells New Times.

Such assurances aren't enough for conservation groups that cite the well-documented history of health problems on the Navajo Nation associated with uranium mining. Any air-quality permits for these mines should be made in consultation with the affected tribes, they contend.

"Uranium mining on the Colorado Plateau unleashed an unending environmental disaster that has permanently scarred the landscape and the local communities," agrees Katie Davis of the Center for Biological Diversity. "It's unconscionable that the state would continue to sacrifice our natural heritage and the health of our fellow citizens by granting these permits."

ADEQ will accept public comments on its draft permits through August 30, and will hold three public meetings next week to address any questions and concerns.

Monday, Aug. 29, 2016
Time: 6 p.m.
Place: Fredonia High School Gymnasium
221 E. Hortt Street
Fredonia, AZ 86022

Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2016
Time1:00 p.m. MST (2:00 p.m. MDT)
Place: Moenkopi Legacy Inn & Suites, Tsotsvalki Conference Center, Tunatya Room #3
Junction of Hwy 160 and Hwy 264, Tuba City, AZ

Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2016
Time: 6 p.m.
Place: Sinagua Middle School
Auditorium — Mini A
3950 E. Butler Ave.
Flagstaff, AZ 86004

**Editor's Note 8/24/16: ADEQ changed the time and location of the Tuba City meeting. The new information is reflected above.
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Miriam is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Miriam Wasser