Mining - Federal Mining Policy and the West

4043074_lowWhy mining is important

When done right, mining can represent a valuable economic resource for local communities. However, mining corporations are still operating under an outdated mining policy (the 1872 Mining Act) that makes sustainability and guaranteed protections against impacts to local water and natural resources anything but a guarantee.  For example, the Environmental Protection Agency has named mining the country’s top toxic polluter for nine straight years now.  According to the report, mining has contaminated 40 percent of the headwaters of western watersheds.

Our work

Land Stewards works to ensure that mining policy and activities take into account protections against potential harms to our water, natural resources and local communities. That means ensuring adequate protections for the Colorado River, which provides drinking water for some 25 million Americans and waters 15% of all crops grown in the U.S.

Uranium Mining

With global prices for uranium skyrocketing in recent years (from $5/lb to more than $50/lb), so has the push to rapidly develop uranium deposits in the Arizona strip north of the Grand Canyon National Park.  Some 10,000 new claims have been staked in northern Arizona in just the last few years. (There were just 10 claims in 2003.)

Unfortunately, uranium mining has a storied history of contamination to water and soil across the West (see below examples). Uranium mining and processing poses a double threat because it is not only a toxic heavy metal but is also highly radioactive. The U.S. Geological Survey recently released a study finding radioactive contamination in every reclaimed uranium mine sampled. Samples taken from a uranium mine within the Grand Canyon found radioactive water contamination levels at 1000 times the legal limit.

Colorado River Watershed and Grand Canyon National Park

The importance of the Colorado River and the Grand Canyon to Arizona and the West cannot be easily overstated:

Hazards of Uranium Mining

  • Little Colorado River: In 1979, an earthen dam breached, releasing 1,100 tons of radioactive mill wastes and 90 million gallons of contaminated water into a tributary of the Little Colorado River. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission acknowledges that many additional toxic tailings have been washed into our region’s waterways. Collectively, these events correlate with documented risks and harm to human health.
  • Grand Canyon, Arizona: In 1984, a flash flood washed tons of high-grade uranium ore from Hack Canyon Mine into Kanab Creek, which drains into Grand Canyon. The Orphan Mine, located along the Park ’s South Rim, continues to contaminate creeks, prompting the National Park Service to warn backpackers along the Tonto Trail not to use water from two drainages.
  • Church Rock, New Mexico: The least predictable risk associated with conventional uranium milling operations is the failure of a tailings dam, which can fail due to poor design, natural erosion of the dam, or natural disasters such as flooding, heavy snow fall, tornados, or earthquakes. In 1979 a dam failure at Church Rock, New Mexico, dumped 1000 tons of sludge and 400 million liters of contaminated water into the surrounding environment, contaminating the Rio Puerco River and nearby aquifers. (Ali, 2003)

  • Schwartzwalder Mine, Colorado: This is a closed mine northwest of Golden, Colorado near Ralston Creek. The creek flows into Ralston Reservoir and has uranium contamination levels some 10 times the federal standard, while water in the mine is 1,000 times the legal limit. (UPI, 9/21/2010)

Department of Interior Uranium Mining Moratorium

With so many new uranium mining claims in the Colorado River watershed and near the Grand Canyon, the US Department of Interior announced in 2009 that it would prohibit certain mining for two years on nearly 1 million acres of federal lands near the Grand Canyon. Interior is now deciding whether to continue to protect these lands for the 20 years. Mining would still be allowed to continue on pre-existing claims, but not for new mining applications. (Reuters, July 20, 2009)

Our work

In 2010 Land Stewards meet with ranchers and farmers across Arizona to listen to their thoughts about and concerns over potential harms that could come to local water and natural resources from an unchecked expansion of uranium mining in the state. (Many folks we spoke with were still smarting from harmful copper mining that’s taken place in the state since the 19th century.) Dozens of ranchers and farmers sent a letter to Interior Secretary Salazar (below) in support of continuing a moratorium against uranium mining for new, unsubstantiated claims within a million acres of critical Colorado River watershed next to the Grand Canyon National Park.

Darlene & Joseph Worischeck, Chick-a-Bee Farms

Douglas Henderson, Lewis' HenHouse & Veggie Farm

Janna Anderson, Pinnacle FarmsTim Kenney, Red Mt CattleTom Savath, Twilight FarmsKathy Porter, Big Happy Farms

December 8, 2010

 

The Honorable Ken Salazar
Secretary of the Interior
U.S. Department of the Interior
1849 C Street, NW
Washington, D.C. 20240

Dear Secretary Salazar,

On behalf of the dozen Arizona ranchers and farmers listed below, I am writing to express my concerns about the potential effects of new uranium mining in northern Arizona, and to urge your support for extending the temporary moratorium on new uranium mining near the Grand Canyon.

Coming from a ranching and farming background yourself, we know you fully understand the importance of water to agriculture. Simply stated, water is the lifeblood of our ranching and farming tradition, and the importance of the Colorado River to Arizona and the West is not easily overstated. Not only does it provide drinking water for one in 12 Americans, it waters 15 percent of all crops grown in our country.

Given uranium mining's legacy of contamination, we are concerned that new mining operations near the Grand Canyon could pollute the Colorado River and contaminate water supplies for farms, ranches and communities downstream. Since the food we produce feeds the nation, is it worth it to risk the security of our water and food supply?

Mr. Secretary, Western ranchers and farmers—yourself included—have long worn cowboy hats for protection from the harsh sun and rain. We have signed a cowboy hat (please see photos attached) to implore you to now extend protections for the Grand Canyon, the Colorado River, and our livelihoods. We hope to have the opportunity to present you with the cowboy hat in person upon your next trip to Arizona. Of course I would be very honored to have you visit Red Mountain Cattle ranch in Mesa at that time.

Sincerely,

 

Tim Kenney
Red Mountain Cattle
Mesa, Arizona

Janna Anderson
Pinnacle Farms
Waddell, AZ

Zack Funke
Health Foodie Honey Farms
Tempe, AZ

John Holbrook
JH Grass Fed Beef
Cave Creek, AZ

Tania Munor
Crooked Sky Farms
Glendale, AZ

Kathy Porter
Big Happy Farms
Crown King, AZ

Kathy Scott
One Windmill Farm
Queen Creek, AZ

Diane Braun
High Castle Ranch
Wilhoit, AZ

Douglas E. Henderson
Lewis' Hen House & Veggie Farm
Casa Grande, AZ

Sidney Maddock
Flying Box Ranch
Springerville, AZ

Mike O'Connor
Chino Valley Farms
Chino Valley, AZ

Tom Savath
Twilight Farms
Mesa, AZ

Darlene and Joseph Worischeck
Chick-a-Bee Gardens
Gilbert, AZ