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Radioactive Dust Surges Near Mine Close to Grand Canyon

With mere days left for the public to comment on whether Arizona should renew air-quality permits for three uranium mines near the Grand Canyon, multiple tests found that the amount of uranium dust in soil near one of the mines is four times higher than background levels.

Energy Fuels Incorporated, which operates the three mines (Pinenut, EZ, and Canyon) in northern Arizona, reported heightened radioactivity near Pinenut Mine in late December after routine tests revealed the level of radioactive dust had spiked.

Arizona Department of Environmental Quality spokeswoman Caroline Oppleman writes in an e-mail obtained by New Times, “Even though levels were much higher, they do not present an immediate health risk.”

But many local tribes and environmentalists disagree, saying this is exactly why Arizona shouldn’t allow uranium mining in the area.

“Shouldn’t we err on the side of caution when we’re talking about human health and places like Grand Canyon?” says Sandy Bahr, director of the Arizona chapter of the Sierra Club. “Radioactive dust can spread a really long ways. What about the [health of the mine] workers? What about people who live nearby or who come into the area and aren’t aware that there is a uranium mine there?”

For years, the Grand Canyon Trust, Center for Biological Diversity, and the Sierra Club repeatedly have cited “concerns over the potential spread of radioactive dust pollution in the city of Flagstaff and tribal communities in northern Arizona,” as well as “the long history of violations of safety and reporting requirements by the mine operator, Energy Fuels.”

“Everyone can agree that breathing radioactive dust is bad for you . . . which is why, from our perspective, these mines don’t belong there. There’s a great risk to the water, the air, wildlife, and certainly to people,” Bahr says.

She adds that even though Pinenut is not an active mine (the company ceased mining a few months ago after depleting most of the ore), the radioactive dust almost certainly is a byproduct of past uranium mining: “When they bring out the ore, they stir up dust.”

Mining companies build special fences to prevent spread of the dangerous dust, states Bahr, but the fact that two tests — one in July and another in October — showed elevated levels outside the fence is proof the company’s protective measures aren’t working.

While Energy Fuels maintains that the levels don’t pose an immediate risk, according to Oppleman, the “ADEQ immediately requested that the company increase its onsite dust control measures as well as implement an expedited and expanded sampling plan to characterize the potentially affected area at Pinenut.”

A few days later, Energy Fuels submitted a plan of action, but on December 22, the ADEQ decided the “response was inadequate.” Energy Fuels submitted a revised response the following day, which the ADEQ says it felt addressed the “most important concerns regarding enhanced dust-control measures and the expedited sampling schedule.”

Meanwhile, as Energy Fuels and the ADEQ monitor the dust situation, the agency has decided to suspend work on the air-quality permit renewals for the three mines.

By law, the state must reassess the terms of the mine’s air-quality permits every five years.

The ADEQ says it “will open a new public comment period for all three air-quality permits and conduct the requested public hearings in Flagstaff and Tuba City . . . Our priority is to ensure that the health of Arizonans and our environment are protected and we take this responsibility very seriously.”

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“We raised these concerns with ADEQ [during the last permit renewal process] in 2011. I feel like it’s an ‘I told you so’ situation because what they’re doing is inadequate . . . We should use the knowledge that we have to create safer conditions, and one way to do it is to say ‘no’ to uranium mines.”

Bahr says this new level of scrutiny is long overdue, but she concedes that “the good news is that the ADEQ responded and is at least taking a harder look at the permit renewals.”

Read more about why environmental groups oppose renewing the mines' permits:

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