Uranium mining near GCNP

Grand Canyon, AZ – To understand what's behind the recent boom in uranium mining claims near the Grand Canyon, you just have to look at the numbers.

In the last few years the price of uranium has jumped from about 10 dollars per pound to more than a hundred dollars per pound. Today it's at about 60 dollars (CHK) BUT speculators project it to increase again as demand for uranium grows.

SFX: screeching of scintillometer

HEFTON: This is a gamma ray scintillometer. It's a prospecting tool that geologists use to prospect for uranium.

Kris Hefton is a geologist for the British firm Vane Minerals. His company wants to drill several exploratory sites a few miles from the Grand Canyon's south rim.

HEFTON: This gives you an example of one of many areas where there's natural uranium in the rock and there are dozens and dozens of places like this around the Grand Canyon.

AMBY: Fade out scintillometer under next graf

There are in fact 11-hundred uranium claims near the park, according to the Department of the Interior. The landscape surrounding the canyon is pocked with what are called breccia pipes that are unique to this area. Hefton says the rock found in these geological formations contains some of the highest grade uranium in the U-S.

Hefton says most people visiting the canyon wouldn't even know the mines were there because they're hidden deep in the Kaibab National Forest. And he says after the mining is completed and the area reclaimed, visitors would hardly know the mines were ever there.

HEFTON: They're mined by a vertical shaft mined out then closed and sealed. There's not a pit or opening at the surface so the area can be reclaimed back to original state. It's an ideal situation for mining in this area.

The only safety concern, Hefton says, is keeping the shafts ventilated for the miners. Still, several environmental groups sued the Forest Service to block Vane from exploring for uranium. And in April, a federal judge temporarily blocked any exploration until more environmental review is done.

Roger Clark is with the Grand Canyon Trust in Flagstaff, one of the groups that filed the lawsuit. He's concerned about large amounts of uranium leaching into the ground water.

CLARK: We feel it's appropriate to create a buffer zone around the ground water and watersheds that allow the Canyon to be viable as an ecologically healthy place but ultimately all this water goes into the Colorado River and becomes drinking water for some 25 million people.

Vane Minerals' Kris Hefton says by mining the uranium they're actually removing some of the rock that would naturally leach into the water. But Martha Hahn, chief of science and resource management at Grand Canyon National Park, says more analysis needs to be done before companies are allowed to drill.

HAHN: We don't know what the impacts could be but we do know we have some fragile resources that if they were impacted could be detrimental.

Uranium mining at Grand Canyon isn't new. The orphan mine, which sits right on the canyon's edge, was opened as a copper mine before Congress created the national park. Uranium mining continued there until 1969.

AMBY: truck driving on dirt road post for a couple seconds

Kris Hefton drives along a dirt road to an old mine a few miles from the Canyon.

HEFTON: See this telephone pole? See how it's been sawed off. The radical environmentalists back in the 80s came out here with a chainsaw began to cut these power poles down in protest of the uranium mine. Think of the fire hazard.

AMBY: fade down truck

Colorado research scientist Karen Wenrich (WHEN-rick) consults mining companies.

WENRICH: One of the most appalling things I've seen is the incredible scientific illiteracy of the general public people are always afraid of what they don't understand.

What people don't understand, says Wenrich, is how harmless the uranium mining industry is.

WENRICH: A rock containing 1 percent uranium which is 10,000 ppm can be held on a person's head for four hours. The person will receive no more radiation than a medical X-ray.

Regardless of how safe uranium mining may be, opponents say what happens after the rock is out of the ground is what's dangerous.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency people who work in facilities that process uranium ore, or enrich uranium for reactor fuel, may have increased exposure to radon gas, which can be lethal in large doses.

That's why Coconino County Supervisor Carl Taylor, who admits the mining may be safe, still doesn't want to have anything to do with the industry as a whole.

TAYLOR: There's a big problem with the refining and a huge problem with what you do with the spent products until you have that entire lifecycle in hand I don't support this industry.

Taylor voted for a recent county resolution that asked Congress to withdraw lands surrounding the park from mining activities.

TAYLOR: This is an industry that has a history of boom and bust. And when the prices fell they had no problem walking away.

Taylor has found an ally in Arizona Congressman Raul Grijalva. Grijalva recently pushed the House Natural Resources Committee to adopt a resolution that withdraws public lands adjacent to the Park from uranium mining for three years. But the resolution needs approval by Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, who according to a department spokesman is looking at whether it's constitutional.

Grijalva has also been pushing for more permanent legislation.

GRIJALVA: I think it's a vote some of my colleagues want to avoid but it's a vote we need to have The mining lobby is a very powerful lobby in Congress they usually get their way. They're so powerful we don't collect royalties. We get it out of oil and gas we don't get it out of mining.

Industry analysts say environmentalists are also powerful. And as demand for nuclear energy grows, they're concerned if the legislation passes, the U-S will rely on other countries for uranium where environmental guidelines are less strict.

For Arizona Public Radio I'm Laurel Morales.