Controversial Grand Canyon uranium mine preparing for production as early as 2023

Arizona Daily Sun (December 9, 2022) by Sean Golightly

The Pinyon Plain (formerly Canyon) uranium mine near Grand Canyon National Park has been issued a new permit by the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, opening the door for future mining. Robert Tohe, courtesy file photo.
A long-dormant uranium mine located 10 miles south of the Grand Canyon could soon begin extracting ore for the first time in 30 years.
Originally permitted in 1984, the Pinyon Plain Mine (formerly the Canyon Mine) owned by Energy Fuels shut down production in 1992 following a dip in uranium prices that made mining unprofitable. Since that time, the mine has been largely dormant but remained permitted for operation, effectively becoming grandfathered into legal operation despite the 20-year moratorium placed on uranium mining in the Grand Canyon region by the Obama administration.
Over the last 30 years, the Pinyon Plain Mine has produced far more controversy than it has uranium. The mine’s proximity to the Grand Canyon and other important ancestral lands, such as Red Butte Mesa, have earned it the opposition of the Havasuapi Tribe, which has protested its existence since the 1980s.
Energy Fuels has also performed a surprising amount of activity on site despite it being dormant. Much of the activity, such as the spraying of arsenic-contaminated water or the accidental puncture of the Coconino aquifer that could lead to long-term contamination of water supplies, has been deemed hazardous by environmental groups. Nonetheless, the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality renewed the mine’s permits earlier this year.
The Canyon Mine was approved in 1986 but has not produced any uranium in part because of low prices due to subsidized foreign producers. It was grandfathered in when the federal government imposed a 20-year uranium mining ban on 1 million acres surrounding the Grand Canyon. Jake Eldridge, Cronkite News file photo.
Now, the Pinyon Plain mine appears to be gearing up for uranium production. Energy Fuels posted job listings this week seeking “miners and support personnel” who “should have some experience in underground mining operations including scaling, blasting, drilling and mucking.”
The listing comes on the heels of a Nov. 14 announcement that a recent trade deal provided Energy Fuels with $120 million in cash that would be used to finance plans that could include “ramping up uranium production” at Pinyon Plain and other mine properties.
They’re getting ready, but uranium production might still take some time, said Energy Fuels spokesperson Curtis Moore.
“We are hiring a few miners at Pinyon Plain to perform some work, including additional underground development and installation of the ventilation shaft,” Moore said. “However, we have not made a decision on when ore production will begin, which would likely be at least a year away.”
According to Moore, Energy Fuels is preparing for uranium production due to the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
“Non-Russian uranium is needed now more than ever,” Moore said. He called the U.S. “disturbingly dependent on Russian uranium,” but expects that to change.
“In a rare show of bipartisanship, the Biden administration and Congress has taken bold action to support domestic nuclear power plants and domestic nuclear fuel capabilities to further lessen our dependence on Russia,” Moore said.
The apparent push for uranium production has elicited alarm from numerous groups that have long stood opposed to the Pinyon Plain Mine and renewed calls for Congress to pass the Grand Canyon Protection Act (GCPA), which would prevent the development of future uranium mines in the region — though Pinyon Plain would be unaffected.
“Uranium mining has a long history of contaminating land and water and sickening people in the region, including on the nearby Navajo Nation, where hundreds of abandoned uranium mines still await cleanup,” wrote the Arizona Trail Association in a statement regarding the mine. “At Pinyon Plain Mine alone, more than 49 million gallons of groundwater contaminated with high levels of uranium and arsenic have been pumped out of the mine shaft.”
Uranium mining does “irreparable damage” said Havasupai Chairman Thomas Siyuja Sr.
Canyon Mine is located south of the Grand Canyon National Park and owned by Energy Fuels Resources, a uranium producer based in Canada. The mine is capable of extracting uranium ore, but has not in recent years because of the low price of uranium. Scott Buffon, Arizona Daily Sun.
“For generations, we have been at the forefront, working to permanently protect our ancient homelands from the negative impacts of uranium mining, which has disproportionately harmed and sickened Indigenous people across northern Arizona,” Siyuja said. “The Senate must pass the Grand Canyon Protection Act and once and for all permanently ban any new uranium mines on our ancestral lands.”
Pinyon Plain Mine remains a “shameful example” why the Grand Canyon region should be permanently protected, said Amber Reimondo, energy director for the Grand Canyon Trust. “For over 30 years the Havasupai Tribe has been clear about the harm this mine causes,” Reimondo said. “Yet regulators still focus only on when and how to allow it, rather than whether this uranium mine should be allowed at all.”
“The clock is ticking for Congress to come together to protect the irreplaceable Grand Canyon watershed landscape and the entire water supply of the Havasupai people from industrial mining threats,” said Michè Lozano, Arizona program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association.
He called the GCPA “essential to prevent the incredible threats that uranium mining poses to the canyon’s limited water sources that feed its creeks and waterways.”
As of reporting, the Grand Canyon Protection Act has passed in the House of Representatives twice but has not been passed in the Senate. Only a few weeks remain in the current legislative session, which is scheduled to end Jan. 3.
Pinyon Plain aside, the health crises and “tragic legacy” of uranium mining “must not be repeated” in the Grand Canyon, said David Spence, MD, board president of the Arizona Chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility.
“Only Congress can protect against the future development of uranium mining in this sensitive region,” he said.
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