To Prevent Another Animas River Spill, Environmental Groups and Local Tribes Demand Feds Update Mining Regulations

In the wake of both the recent Gold King Mine disaster, which unleashed more than 3 million gallons of toxic mining waste into the Animas River earlier this month, and the impending resumption of uranium mining at Canyon Mine near the Grand Canyon, a coalition of 15 environmental organizations, three Native American tribes, and two counties in Arizona and Colorado filed a petition today under the Administrative Procedures Act demanding that the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management update federal mining regulations.

“For too long, the federal government has allowed our public lands to become toxic dumping grounds for mining corporations,” says Katherine Davis of the Center for Biological Diversity in a joint statement released this morning by the coalition. “Federal agencies have the ability to start addressing the problems unfolding at existing mines now . . . to ensure better protection of public lands, water supplies, and wildlife habitat.”

Today’s action is the latest in an ongoing battle to stop uranium mining and limit the impacts of hard-rock mining in the region by coercing the federal government to take stronger regulatory action. Of particular concern to those filing the petition is the set of rules contained within the General Mining Act of 1872, like those governing post-mining cleanup and "zombie mines," or mines that go in and out of use depending on market conditions.

As it stands, once a mining company’s plan of operation is approved, its permit is open-ended and not subject to further review or revision, even if external conditions change. The petitioners say that because our scientific understanding of ecosystems and water contamination has improved dramatically since many of the permits were granted in the early 1980s, it doesn't make sense to not require an updated environmental impact statement.
The current “permitting regime fails to avoid, minimize, and mitigate the deleterious effects of uranium mining on human health and the environment, consistent with the [BLM and FS’] legal mandates,” the petition states.

“Because inoperative mines are inadequately regulated, they pollute surface and groundwater, contaminate soils and kill vegetation, adversely affect sensitive species and their habitat, adversely affect sensitive cultural and historic resources, and have the potential to profoundly affect human health.”

The groups behind today’s filing — which include the Grand Canyon Trust, the Center for Biological Diversity, Earthworks, the Sierra Club, the Information Network for Responsible Mining, Uranium Watch, the Havasupai, Hualapai, and Zuni tribes, and Coconino County and Colorado’s San Miguel County — want to see the federal rules changed to prevent future “radioactive contamination in the Grand Canyon and protect water resources within the Colorado River Basin.”

At the heart of the 74-page petition are four suggestions:
1. Limits on the lifetime of a mine permit.
2. Enforceable reclamation deadlines and groundwater monitoring requirements on mines.
3. Regular monitoring and inspections.
4. A limit on the number of years that a mine can remain inactive.

“The manner in which the agencies currently regulate inoperative mines simply is not working, and a better regime can be achieved with relatively modest effort,” states the petition.

“Our proposed changes would build upon concepts and authority already present in the agencies’ regulations and impose little additional burden on regulated entities, all with an eye toward more responsibly managing our public lands.”
As the Center for Biological Diversity's Davis told New Times earlier this summer, “allowing uranium mines to operate without a full understanding of the scientific, environmental, and cultural risks hurts our public lands and endangers our drinking water.” She and other environmentalists warn of impending and non-reversible environmental destruction, particularly if groundwater continues to be polluted.

“It is my view that protection of land resources, water resources, and environmental values must cover all phases of uranium mining activity from exploration, through development and production, to reasonable post-mining rehabilitation,” explains Mandy Metzger, a member of the Arizona Board of Land Management Resource Advisory Council and a representative on the Coconino Board of Supervisors, the latter of which is a co-petitioner in today’s filing.

“Current regulations do not provide assurance that uranium mines near the vicinity of the Grand Canyon are adequately regulated.”
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Miriam is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Miriam Wasser