Thursday, February 7, 2008

Uranium Mining in Arizona

For the first time in nearly twenty years, exploratory drilling for uranium deposits will be done in the area just outside the Grand Canyon National Park. According to the New York Times, said drilling will commence with the approval of the Forest Service; however, the Board of Supervisors for Coconino County, Arizona has already unanimously voted to attempt to prevent any drilling in the area.

The major issues cited regarding attempts to prevent this mining is threats to the environment and the effect the mining of radioactive materials will have on the health and well-being of mine workers and others in the nearby area. Apparently a full-dress environmental study was not performed by the Forest Service prior to granting approval. In defense of approving any drilling without such a study, the Forest Service claims that it is not required as any exploration would last less than a year, and it is uncertain whether such exploration will lead to full-scale mining.

According to the Kaibab National Forest’s spokesperson, Barbara McCurry claims that “her agency had little choice but to allow the drilling under the 1872 mining law that governs hard-rock mining claims.” She states that any exploratory drilling will be minimal, and that the agency will attempt to mitigate any potential impact the mining may cause. Also, if this exploratory mining led to a full-scale operation, Ms. McCurry has stated that a full environmental analysis would be required before granting permission.

However, according to Deb Hill, chairwoman of the Coconino Board, “We have a legacy, which isn’t too good, from the uranium mining in the past”. When drilling had been performed in the area previously workers and family members apparently had suffered from different forms of cancer. Also, there are concerns about safely transporting the radioactive material and the potential of contaminating some water sources.

Dusty Horwitt, who has written a report on behalf of the Environmental Working Group in Washington reporting on the new wave of uranium mining, states that, “If uranium mining operations are about to start on the edge of the Grand Canyon and federal officials say there’s nothing we can do, the time is now to reform the 1872 mining law”. In addition to the opposition from the Coconino Board of Supervisors and groups such as the Environmental Working Group, several Indian tribes in Arizona had previously voted to ban uranium mining on their land.

The fact that even this exploratory mining was approved without an environmental analysis, and with very little notice, is a bit worrisome. This would be the case no mater what was being mined as there is a chance that such mining could lead to some type of environmental issues. However, when added into the equation that the exploratory mines are being drilled to search for uranium, a highly radioactive material, questions about health and the environment are further compounded.

Perhaps it is time to rethink the 1872 mining law allowing this exploratory operation. It is clear that the county is wary of allowing drilling and is attempting to stop the same. Also, a number of Indian tribes in the area have previously expressed their opinion on the subject. But even with this opposition, it is likely that this mining will be allowed due to a law passed approximately 135 years ago, when concerns over the environment were not as prevalent and the full dangers of materials such as uranium were not fully known.

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