FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. -- Northern Arizona has four times more uranium than any other deposit in the United States. But as of 2012, new uranium mining claims are banned on land surrounding Grand Canyon National Park. The uranium riches still have mining companies looking for a way in.
For many years uranium mines have provided hundreds of jobs to this region, but it’s a cyclical industry. While the current price for uranium is low, analysts and mining companies are looking ahead to a new boom when China and India finish construction on several new nuclear reactors.
Donn Pillmore oversees the Arizona Strip mines for Energy Fuels Resources. He’s been a geologist for the uranium industry for more than 30 years.
"It’s probably the cleanest, safest energy we have available," Pillmore said. "The rest of the world has recognized that and so there’s going to be an ongoing demand for uranium."
In northern Arizona the uranium is contained in what are called breccia pipes, a vertical core of cemented broken rock. Mining companies can come in, extract the ore and clean up the site in a relatively short period of time. Pillmore drove recently on a dirt road to the Arizona 1 mine about 10 miles north of the Grand Canyon park boundary.
The 2012 Obama Administration ban meant large parcels of federal land were withdrawn from mining. But the Arizona 1 mine was one of four that was grandfathered in before the ban.
A 10-story tall yellow tower or headframe, a warehouse and a containment pond sit on an area the size of a Walmart parking lot. About a thousand feet below the surface a couple dozen miners use explosives to blast out the ore.
"That box you see up in the headframe there, that’s the man cage the miners ride up and down into the mine on," Pillmore points to the tower. "And underneath that see that bucket sticking out of the shoot there that’s what carries the ore."
The giant yellow bucket turned upside down and dumped two-and-a-half tons of gray rock, which was then stockpiled for the ore trucks.
Pillmore then stuck one end of a geiger counter into the rocks to measure the radiation level. It made an increasingly louder beeping sound.
"This material right here runs 10 pounds of uranium per ton of rock," Pillmore said. "This is about our average grade."
Environmentalists are concerned that average grade could be toxic. A few miles east of the mine, Kanab Creek flows into the Colorado River. The Colorado supplies water for 12 million people throughout the Southwest.
In 2009 scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey found samples from 15 springs and five wells that showed dissolved uranium concentrations greater than the EPA’s maximum for drinking water. Don Bills is a hydrologist for the U.S. Geological Survey. His work was the basis for the Interior Secretary’s decision to institute the 20-year ban.
"By opening up the mine, exposing it to the air to an oxygenated environment makes it that much easier for uranium to migrate out of its hard rock phase into a dissolved phase with water," Bills said.
Bills said uranium also naturally leaches into springs so more studies are needed. And that fuels the debate between the environmentalists and the uranium mining companies.
"The information we develop in some cases can be interpreted to support both cases," Bills said.
Mining companies have sued the federal government in an effort to revoke the ban. They argue that it’s unconstitutional and that the watershed has not been harmed.
They’re also pushing to open a mine on state land — not covered under the federal ban.
In addition, companies say they have essentially pre-existing rights to mine several already explored breccia pipes in the ban area.
"Not so fast," said Roger Clark, spokesman for the Grand Canyon Trust. "That right has to be established through a procedure that’s spelled out in federal regulations. And that has yet to be done on any of those mines."
The continued push to find ways around the 2012 ban is just the latest chapter in a decades-old battle between conservationists and industry.
EDITOR'S NOTE: A previous version of this story included information from the Nuclear Energy institute that claimed the amount of uranium in northern Arizona was enough to power the city of Phoenix for 300 years. We've removed that information from the story as that fact was not substantiated.