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Mine near Grand Canyon uses polluted water to control dust

An overlook of the Grand Canyon. (Photo by Tim Brown/Courtesy Bureau of Reclamation)

An overlook of the Grand Canyon. (Photo by Tim Brown/Courtesy Bureau of Reclamation)

Arizona’s Department of Environmental Quality is allowing a uranium mine operator to spray water laced with uranium and arsenic on the ground to keep dust down on its site, but it is considering the status of the mine’s permit.

The dust suppression tactic is happening at Canyon Mine, a uranium mine in a patch of the Kaibab National Forest, about 10 miles from the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park. While the direct consequences of this specific operation are unknown for now, there is research from government agencies and aggregated research from environmental groups that show the documented, negative effects of uranium mining.

ADEQ inspectors and mine staff confirmed that the water being used to keep dust down is being pumped out of the mine shaft, which has high levels of arsenic and uranium, stored in tanks on site and then sprayed from a truck.

In a statement sent to the Arizona Capitol Times, ADEQ said it is aware of the concern and that it “is committed to taking actions that are protective of public health and the environment.” According to 2018 data from Energy Fuels, the mine operator, that water contains levels of uranium as high as 29 times higher than the EPA drinking water standard for arsenic and four times the standard for uranium.

Energy Fuels did not respond to multiple requests for comment. 

ADEQ said the continued investigation and review of the Aquifer Protection Permits (APP) will conclude with a “science and data-based decision.” 

“ADEQ is committed to having a full understanding of current activities at the site,” the statement read. “The terms of the APP general permit are in effect until ADEQ makes a final determination in regards to the APP general permit renewal application.”

The tanks of stored contaminated water, which feed the spray trucks, are exempt from APP guidelines and it’s unclear why.

Now, the department’s geologists and engineers are reviewing information to decide whether to revoke the site’s permits. Those permits and others are needed for operation.

The Grand Canyon Trust and the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon chapter want the site’s Aquifer Protection Permit not to be renewed, citing a time in 2013 when mine operators drilled into and pierced shallow aquifers. It has continued to flood since, spilling millions of gallons into the shaft, which is removed and stored in a pond on site.

Pictured is the headframe to the Canyon Uranium Mine, owned by Energy Fuels, which is using water contaminated with uranium and arsenic to control dust. The mine is about 10 miles from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. PHOTO COURTESY OF U.S. DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE

Pictured is the headframe to the Canyon Uranium Mine, owned by Energy Fuels, which is using water contaminated with uranium and arsenic to control dust. The mine is about 10 miles from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. PHOTO COURTESY OF U.S. DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE

That water permit expired at the end of August and is being reviewed by ADEQ. It is not clear when exactly this review will conclude, as public input and review of evidence can take time.

ADEQ did not say how long Energy Fuels has sprayed the ground and where exactly they’ve been spraying. It could be within a 17-acre perimeter or along it or the roads leading to it. That distinction matters to environmental advocates like Amber Wilson-Reimondo, energy program director at the Grand Canyon Trust.

Wilson-Reimondo and others worry what traces of those harmful chemicals and metals from the water remain in the soil that blows away and what effect it could have on surrounding wildlife. Wilson-Reimondo said a metal fence doesn’t stop blowing dust.  

It isn’t known if this water sprayed on the surface can reach the lower aquifers, which feed nearby streams in side canyons and ecosystems nearby.

“But if you’re spraying that consistently and it’s building up on the surface, then it might blow off site,” Wilson-Reimondo said. 

She said she has been on site during dry, windy days when that spraying doesn’t happen and that dust freely flies.

“On top of that,” Wilson-Reimondo said, “if this is building up on the surface, what does this do to the soil quality so that if there is a big rainstorm and it (the water) does infiltrate, then what?”

There are many unknowns, but research from the U.S. Geological Survey shows that post-reclamation contamination in dust from uranium sites was above levels harmful to wildlife and that spadefoot toads in the Canyon Mine’s ponds had toxic levels of contaminants.

Tribal members that live in and around the Grand Canyon, particularly the Havasupai, worry that operations from it and other mines could contaminate the creeks and waterfalls fed by aquifers that flow into the Colorado River. Energy Fuels has called these claims unfounded, but recent reports from Environment Arizona Research and Policy Center and the Grand Canyon Trust highlight the risk of uranium mining and document the effects it has on surrounding land and people.

Those reports aggregate some of the largely lacking scientific research and understanding about uranium mining. According to those reports, every mining operation has required some level of cleanup, and mines are known to spread radioactive dust that lingers in the air and soil. What remains unknown is the broader effects that exposure has on people and animals.

Dr. David Kreamer, a professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, has an extensive background in hydrogeology, hydrology and contaminant transport by groundwater. He said he is concerned about continued uranium mining near the canyon. Kreamer said he is concerned that these operations are continuing without more recent and extensive research informing the process. The research, he said, is lacking and inconclusive in regards to the effects operations like this are having on the workers, the surrounding land and the animals on it.

Now, Kreamer and others are advocating for tree ring studies to better understand the possible effects on vegetation that could be exposed to the contaminated dust. It’s also harder to track the spread of any possible contamination further underground, Kreamer said, as there is only one monitoring well drilled outside the perimeter while most places with possible contamination have three.

“The monitoring is so poor around the mine site that – we’re certainly not looking at the precautionary principle here,” Kreamer said.

He said there’s an assumption that there is no risk.

While Kreamer can’t speak directly to the risk, because of a lack of monitoring and information, he said his concerns are not only with water quality, but water quantity. Back in the early 1990’s he testified before ADEQ and said he was concerned the two aquifer systems that sit below the site and supply ecosystems were at risk of being breached, which could risk exposing it to the uranium being mined.

In 2016, operators hit an aquifer and so much water had to be pumped out of the flooding shaft that the holding ponds on site, which allow the water to evaporate, couldn’t hold it all. To compensate, the mines bought water cannons and shot the water coming out of the shaft into the atmosphere to evaporate it, which spread the water around in many ways.

Kreamer, citing recent data, said that the mine shaft is flooding with 19 gallons of water a minute – that’s about 10 million gallons a year.

“That water is drying up a perched aquifer and it has got to go somewhere,” Kreamer said. “It either has to feed the main aquifers eventually, it has to go out to springs and it’s not a question of if it’s going to affect springs and ecosystems. It’s a matter of where and when.”

Editor’s Note: In the initial story, Dr. David Kreamer was incorrectly identified. Also, he used the word “perched,” not parched. We apologize for the errors. 

2 comments

  1. The Colorado River normally carries about 120,000 pounds of uranium down the river every year according to the U.S. Geological Survey. This uranium is eroded from the sediments in the canyon walls. A study by the Arizona Geological Survey states that normal concentration of uranium in river water is about 4 parts per billion. AGS conducted a study which postulated a major uranium spill. Such an event could increase uranium concentration in the river from 4ppb to 4.02ppb. Nothing significant. See my article on the studies which contains links to the original studies: https://wryheat.wordpress.com/2012/01/10/uranium-mining-ban-near-grand-canyon-all-politics-no-science/

  2. Industry will always lead the charge to prevent government regulation. It just does not seem to matter whether it is opioids, oil & gas fracking, or uranium mining … big money wins by being persistent and outlasting or pushing out of circulation the activists and elected officials who stand in their way by protecting our communities.

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