Air Quality permit renewals for Grand Canyon uranium mines cause concern

The Canyon Mine, located around six miles from the South Rim entrance gates of Grand Canyon National Park, is one of three uranium mines seeking renewal permits from the Arizona Department of Environmental Equality. Loretta Yerian/WGCN

The Canyon Mine, located around six miles from the South Rim entrance gates of Grand Canyon National Park, is one of three uranium mines seeking renewal permits from the Arizona Department of Environmental Equality. Loretta Yerian/WGCN

GRAND CANYON, Ariz. - On Aug. 15, environmental groups asked the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) to deny air permits for three uranium mines near Grand Canyon and to continue monitoring an inactive mine.

According to the Grand Canyon Trust, Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity, the mines are located within watersheds (surface and ground) that drain directly into Grand Canyon National Park (GCNP) and threaten water, air and resources of the greater Grand Canyon eco-region, including soil, wildlife, sacred American Indian sites and the health of people exposed to the heavy metals.

ADEQ proposes to issue renewals of and a significant revision to Air Quality Control Permits held by Energy Fuels Resources (USA) Inc., operating mines around the Grand Canyon.

According to the groups, some of the metals could include arsenic and lead.

The groups filed comments with the department outlining ongoing concerns with the four uranium mines and noted that in 2010 they, Coconino County Supervisor Carl Taylor and hundreds of citizens objected to issuing air permits for these mines because of unacceptable risks to residents and visitors to the Grand Canyon region. The state agency has yet to address the substantive issues that were raised.

"For more than a half-century, uranium mining has permanently polluted our land, air and water. Its deadly legacy is well documented and yet state and federal agencies are still permitting new mines," said Sandy Bahr with Sierra Club's Grand Canyon Chapter. "Given the proximity of these mines to Grand Canyon and the history of contamination, ADEQ should give these mines the utmost scrutiny and reject these permits."

Energy Fuels is a leading producer of uranium in the United States. The permits are for the operation of uranium mines at Canyon Mine (around six miles south of Tusayan), EZ Mine (37 miles south of Fredonia) and AZ1 Mine (35 miles south of Fredonia). These facilities are sources of particulate matter and products of combustion (carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide and volatile organic compounds).

In an Aug. 18 press release by Energy Fuels, the company announced it had intercepted several large and high-grade areas of mineralization at its Canyon Mine. The company said it is currently pursuing an underground delineation core drilling program from a station located at a depth of around 1,000 feet below the surface.  To date, 13 core holes have been drilled, and most have encountered uranium mineralization in multiple levels throughout the deposit, including 8.5-feet of mineralization with an average grade of 6.88 percent eU3O8, 48.0-feet of mineralization with an average grade of 1.02 percent eU3O8, and 35-feet of mineralization with an average grade of 1.39 percent eU3O8.  The company expects to drill a total of 15 core holes from the first station during the current drilling program, which is expected to be followed up by additional delineation drilling from a second station later this year.

According to Energy Fuels, a June 27, 2012 technical report prepared in accordance with National Instrument 43-101 - Standards of Disclosure for Mineral Projects ("NI 43-101"), the Canyon deposit contains 83,000 tons of Inferred Mineral Resources with an average grade of 0.98% eU3O8, containing 1.63 million pounds of uranium.

Stephen P. Antony, president and CEO of Energy Fuels said in the press release that the results of the underground drill program at the Canyon deposit are very positive.

"We have long known that the Canyon deposit boasts world-class uranium grades, and we have the potential to increase the tonnage to be mined through underground delineation drilling," he said. "Historically, uranium produced from other similar deposits in northern Arizona was low-cost and competitive globally with other low-cost underground uranium mines, including mines in Canada. In addition, the Canyon Mine enjoys other important advantages. It is fully licensed and permitted. It is at a very advanced stage of construction, with all surface development completed and the shaft is close to being complete. And, the mine is located within economic trucking distance of Energy Fuels' White Mesa Mill, which is licensed, operating, and has the capacity to process the Canyon material into finished yellowcake that can be sold to global nuclear utilities. We look forward to completing our current drill program, potentially performing future delineation drill programs, and continuing to confirm the size and quality of the resources."

In addition to the delineation drilling, the company is also continuing to sink an eight by 20 foot mine shaft, which will be used to access the deposit. The shaft is currently at a depth of 1,100 feet.

Earlier this year ADEQ suspended the permit-renewal process after increased uranium levels were found in the soil near Pinenut Mine, north of Grand Canyon. Soil tests indicated that the uranium levels were four times higher than the normal background levels.

"Once again we see the cumulative evidence of uranium contamination," said Roger Clark with the Grand Canyon Trust. "When will the Grand Canyon State stop issuing permits to pollute our air and water?"

A public comment period for the ADEQ permits will be held from July 25 - Aug. 30. Written comments may be submitted by mail to ADEQ Balaji Vaidyanatha Air Quality Permits Section Manager 1110 West Washington Street, 3415A-1 Phoenix, Ariz. 85007 (must be postmarked by Aug. 30, by fax to (602) 771-2299. ADEQ will hold three public hearings: Aug. 29 at 6 p.m. at the Fredonia High School Gym. 221 E. Hortt Street Fredonia; Aug. 30, from 1 - 3 p.m. at the Tuba City Chapter House 220 S. Main Street Tuba City; Aug. 30 at 6 p.m. at the Sinagua Middle School Auditorium - Mini A 3950 E. Butler Ave. Flagstaff.

ADEQ will consider all comments received in making a final decision on the proposed permits. Grounds for comment are limited to whether the permits meet the criteria for issuance spelled out in the state air pollution control laws or rules.

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