Flagstaff, AZ – SFX: Sterling Spring rushing water
On a recent snowy afternoon Roger Clark admires the bright blue stellar jays as they flock to a spring in northern Arizona.
CLARK: One reason it's here is because we're standing on a major fault line, a fracture in the earth's crust that extends between Oak Creek Canyon and the Grand Canyon.
Clark, a spokesman for Grand Canyon Trust, is worried about this water becoming contaminated by uranium mining. When the mining companies drill for uranium they dig a very deep hole in the landscape.
CLARK: They create a vertical pathway, which is a pathway for water like the snowmelt we see today to move from the surface all the way down thru the rock to the springs in the Grand Canyon.
So far studies have shown if the contamination ever reached the Colorado River, an essential water source for 25 million people across the southwest, the fast currents would dilute it. Both Nevada and California water authorities have expressed concern about cumulative impacts of uranium mining near the river.
And Clark says the current environmental permits required of Denison won't sufficiently protect northern Arizona's water supply.
CLARK: The permits don't require adequate monitoring of ground water in fact they don't require any monitoring of ground water before or after the mining so one they can't tell if any contamination occurs and second there's no remediation so there's no bond for taking care of the mess that's left behind.
SFX: Fade out spring
Denison is betting on the fact that there will be no mess. Ron Hochstein is the CEO of the Canada-based mining company.
HOCHSTEIN: Mines tend to be dry so there is no ground water coming into the mine in the event any ground water does enter the mine it's all collected in sumps and then pumped up to surface and stored in lined ponds Any rain that will fall on the site the sites are burmed and all that water is collected.
But hydrogeologist Abe Springer, who has been studying northern Arizona's aquifers for 15 years, is concerned about a big storm or flood.
SPRINGER: Those types of extremes can lead to significant events which might recharge or overtop design features the aquifers they are very deep if something ever gets into them there are no technologies in place to clean them up.
To put it in perspective Springer compares a potential uranium disaster to the Gulf Oil Spill. He says the difference is oil breaks down much faster than the thousands of years that it takes radioactive isotopes to become safe.
SPRINGER: That's the real concern if something gets in there there's no way to clean it up or fix it. It's there forever.
Arizona Department of Environmental Quality interim director Henry Darwin admits that they are streamlining the permit process. And that means Denison will not have to monitor the aquifers until inspectors find contamination and they won't have to set aside money for clean-up until a problem occurs.
DARWIN: We're assuming at this point that there won't be ground water contamination. If ground water contamination were to occur the money set aside would be woefully inadequate to do that. That's why we've reserved the right in the permit to make sure we can reopen the issue if ground water contamination is found.
Environmentalists worry with last year's severe budget cuts and subsequent layoffs the state agency doesn't have enough staff to keep close tabs on the mines.
The Interior Department put a temporary halt to any new mining claims. But that period runs out in six months and with the price for uranium steadily increasing the potential for more mines may also increase.
In Flagstaff I'm Laurel Morales.