FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. -- Mineral experts say the land surrounding the Grand Canyon contains some of the richest uranium ore deposits in the country. Countries like India and China are clamoring for the ore as they expand their nuclear energy industries. Back in March the Fronteras Desk brought you a story about uranium mining from the industry’s perspective.
"It’s probably the cleanest, safest energy we have available," said Donn Pillmore, who oversees the Arizona Strip mines for Energy Fuels Resources. "The rest of the world has recognized that, and so there’s going to be an ongoing demand for uranium."
But environmentalists and Indian tribes oppose mining near the canyon.
On a recent sunny day EcoFlight pilot Gary Kraft steered the six-seat Cessna onto the tarmac of the Grand Canyon Airport and gracefully took off. He flew a group over the Grand Canyon to check out mines from above.
"As Gary brings the plane around we’ll get a little better look at the site," said Grand Canyon Trust’s Roger Clark who served as our guide.
He has been fighting uranium mining companies for many years. Last year he scored a victory. The Obama Administration put a ban on any new mining claims on federal land surrounding the park. In the 1980s and 1990s a dozen mines pocked the landscape surrounding the park. All but a few have been cleaned up and reseeded. But a handful of older claims are still being mined.
"Pinenut’s off to our right at the end of that dirt road," Clark said.
From 11,000 feet the Pinenut Mine looked like a postage stamp, with little evidence of mining. It’s actually about the size of a Walmart parking lot. Clark said the big concern is what happens below the surface. Mining companies often drill 2,000-3,000 feet before they hit an ore body. And Clark said that’s where they run into trouble.
"When they reopened it here in 2011 they found millions of gallons of water had filled up shaft," Clark said. "And they had to dewater the shaft. The source was most likely an aquifer they punctured on the way down to the ore body."
Clark said the water likely became contaminated when it sat with the exposed uranium ore. As we could see from above, the mine isn’t far from drainages and creeks. The U.S. Geological Survey conducted studies in 2010 that showed 15 springs and five wells contained dissolved uranium concentrations in excess of environmental standards for drinking water.
Next we fly through the area off-limits to mines and what’s known as the Dragon Corridor where the earth below drops away to a dark green ribbon sparkling in the sun — the Colorado River.
Mining companies have recently tried a new strategy — going after ore deposits on state land. Clark explained the high desert we were flying over is a checkerboard of federal, private, tribal and state land. A proposed mine site called the Wate Mine sits on state land completely surrounded by the area off-limits to mining.
"There’s a few signs that trucks have been out there," he said. "And indeed they’ve been doing exploratory drilling for the uranium ore but they’re not out there today. They’ve concluded their drilling. They know they have a valuable deposit and want to go after it."
The site is eight miles from the nearest spring that flows into Havasu Creek and its picturesque waterfalls. Havasupai Chairman Don Watahomigie has been battling the mining companies in court for many years. He’s concerned about the potential for drinking water contamination.
"Water, rain, snowmelt up on top of the rim flows into our creek down here," Watahomigie said. "We have a lot of drainages. Anything that’s up there flows down here."
But the mining company faces another obstacle. The site is surrounded by a ranch that’s owned by the Navajo Nation. The tribe has said it would not allow the company to transport uranium across its land, because the industry has caused the Navajo people so much suffering. The federal government is still cleaning up mines on the reservation.
Dave Uberuaga, the superintendent of Grand Canyon National Park, said he's also concerned about the Grand Canyon watershed and the Havasupai’s drinking water.
"How would you ever compensate?" Uberuaga said. "How would you ever make up for that damage, that loss of a community that’s lived there for 700 years and literally rely on that water source for almost everything that they do and for the reasons that they’re there? The risks associated with that need to be weighed very clearly."
The mining company VANE Minerals, along with its Russian partner, didn’t respond to requests for comment on this story. But in their application to the state land department they have claimed mining activities would not impact groundwater. In all, the company has identified 126 sites it would like to explore and possibly mine on this parcel of state land.