Smaller Bears Ears leads to new push by ura­nium min­ers

The Buffalo News - - WASHINGTON NEWS - By Hiroko Tabuchi

MON­U­MENT VAL­LEY, Utah – Garry Hol­i­day grew up among the abandoned mines that dot the Navajo Na­tion’s red land­scape, rem­nants of a time when ura­nium helped ce­ment Amer­ica’s sta­tus as a nu­clear su­per­power and fu­eled its nu­clear en­ergy pro­gram.

It left a toxic legacy. All but a few of the 500 abandoned mines still await cleanup. Min­ing tainted the lo­cal ground­wa­ter. Hol­i­day’s father suc­cumbed to res­pi­ra­tory dis­ease af­ter years of hack­ing the ore from the earth.

But now, em­bold­ened by the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s em­brace of cor­po­rate in­ter­ests, the ura­nium min­ing in­dus­try is re­new­ing a push into the ar­eas ad­ja­cent to Hol­i­day’s Navajo Na­tion home: the Grand Canyon wa­ter­shed to the west, where a new ura­nium mine is pre­par­ing to open, and the Bears Ears Na­tional Mon­u­ment to the north.

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion is set to shrink Bears Ears by 85 per­cent next month, po­ten­tially open­ing more than 1 mil­lion acres to min­ing, drilling and other in­dus­trial ac­tiv­ity. But even as Interior Sec­re­tary Ryan Zinke de­clared last month that “there is no mine within Bears Ears,” there were more than 300 ura­nium min­ing claims in­side the mon­u­ment, ac­cord­ing to data from Utah’s Bureau of Land Man­age­ment of­fice that was re­viewed by the New York Times.

The vast ma­jor­ity of those claims fall neatly out­side the new bound­aries of Bears Ears set by the ad­min­is­tra­tion. And an ex­am­i­na­tion of lo­cal BLM records, in­clud­ing those not yet en­tered into the agency’s land and min­eral use au­tho­riza­tions data­base, shows that about a third of the claims are linked to En­ergy Fu­els, a Cana­dian ura­nium pro­ducer. En­ergy Fu­els also owns the Grand Canyon mine, where ground­wa­ter has flooded the main shaft.

En­ergy Fu­els, to­gether with other min­ing groups, lob­bied ex­ten­sively for a re­duc­tion of Bears Ears, pre­par­ing maps that marked the ar­eas it wanted re­moved from the mon­u­ment and dis­tribut­ing them dur­ing a visit to the mon­u­ment by Zinke in May.

En­ergy Fu­els’ lob­by­ing cam­paign, el­e­ments of which were first re­ported by the Wash­ing­ton Post, is part of a wider ef­fort by the long-ail­ing ura­nium in­dus­try to make a come­back.

The Ura­nium Pro­duc­ers of Amer­ica, an in­dus­try group, is push­ing the En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency to with­draw reg­u­la­tions pro­posed by the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion to strengthen ground­wa­ter pro­tec­tions at ura­nium mines. Min­ing groups have also waged a six-year le­gal bat­tle against a mora­to­rium on new ura­nium min­ing on more than 1 mil­lion acres of land ad­ja­cent to the Grand Canyon.

For the Navajo, the drive for new mines is a painful flash­back.

“Back then, we didn’t know it was dan­ger­ous – no­body told us,” Hol­i­day said, as he pointed to the gashes of dis­col­ored rocks that mark where the old ura­nium mines cut into the re­gion’s mesas. “Now they know. They know.”

A re­vival

Sup­port­ers of the min­ing say that a re­vival of do­mes­tic ura­nium pro­duc­tion, which has de­clined 90 per­cent since 1980 amid slump­ing prices and for­eign com­pe­ti­tion, will make the United States a larger player in the global ura­nium mar­ket.

It would ex­pand the coun­try’s en­ergy in­de­pen­dence, they say, and give a lift to nu­clear power, still a pil­lar of car­bon-free power gen­er­a­tion. Canada, Kaza­khstan, Aus­tralia, Rus­sia and a few other coun­tries now sup­ply most of Amer­ica’s nu­clear fuel.

The dwin­dling do­mes­tic mar­ket was thrust into the spot­light by the con­tentious 2010 de­ci­sion un­der the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion that al­lowed Rus­sia’s nu­clear agency to buy Ura­nium One, a com­pany that has amassed pro­duc­tion fa­cil­i­ties in the United States. The Jus­tice De­part­ment is ex­am­in­ing al­le­ga­tions that do­na­tions to the Clin­ton Foun­da­tion were tied to that de­ci­sion.

“If we con­sider nu­clear a clean en­ergy, if peo­ple are se­ri­ous about that, do­mes­tic ura­nium has to be in the equa­tion,” said Jon J. In­dall, a lawyer for Ura­nium Pro­duc­ers of Amer­ica. “But the pro­posed reg­u­la­tions would have had a dev­as­tat­ing im­pact on our in­dus­try.”

“Coun­tries like Kaza­khstan, they’re not un­der the same en­vi­ron­men­tal stan­dards. We want a level play­ing field.”

The trip was one of the ear­li­est made by Zinke to the vast lands he over­sees as sec­re­tary of the interior: a visit to Bears Ears, where he struck a com­mand­ing fig­ure, tour­ing the rugged ter­rain on horse­back.

A no­table pres­ence on Zinke’s trip was En­ergy Fu­els, the Cana­dian ura­nium pro­ducer. Com­pany ex­ec­u­tives openly lob­bied for shrink­ing Bears Ears’ bor­ders, hand­ing out the map that marked the pock­ets the com­pany wanted re­moved: ar­eas ad­ja­cent to its White Mesa Mill, just to the east of the mon­u­ment, and its Daneros Mine, which it is de­vel­op­ing just to the west.

“They wanted to talk to any­one who’d lis­ten,” said Com­mis­sioner Phil Ly­man of San Juan County, Utah, a Repub­li­can who par­tic­i­pated in the tour and is sym­pa­thetic to En­ergy Fu­els’ po­si­tion. “They were there rep­re­sent­ing their busi­ness in­ter­est.”

Zinke has in­sisted that min­ing played no role in the de­ci­sion to shrink Bears Ears, and a de­part­ment spokes­woman said he had met with in­ter­ested par­ties on all sides.

But Pres­i­dent Trump has pri­or­i­tized scrap­ping en­vi­ron­men­tal reg­u­la­tions to help re­vi­tal­ize do­mes­tic en­ergy pro­duc­tion. His ex­ec­u­tive or­der in­struct­ing Zinke to re­view Bears Ears said im­proper mon­u­ment des­ig­na­tions could “cre­ate bar­ri­ers to achiev­ing en­ergy in­de­pen­dence.”

In the­ory, even af­ter Pres­i­dent Barack Obama es­tab­lished Bears Ears in 2016, min­ing com­pa­nies could have de­vel­oped any of the claims within it, given proper lo­cal ap­provals. But com­pa­nies say that ex­pand­ing the sites, or even build­ing roads to ac­cess them, would have re­quired spe­cial per­mits, driv­ing up costs.

En­ergy Fu­els said it had sold its Bears Ears claims to a smaller com­pany, En­core En­ergy, in 2016. But En­core is­sued shares to En­ergy Fu­els in re­turn, mak­ing En­ergy Fu­els En­core’s largest share­holder, with a seat on its board. Cur­tis Moore, an En­ergy Fu­els spokesman, said the com­pany had played only a small part in the de­ci­sion to shrink Bears Ears. The com­pany pro­posed scal­ing back the mon­u­ment by just 2.5 per­cent, he said, and was pre­pared to sup­port a ban within the rest of the orig­i­nal bound­aries.

Yet two weeks af­ter Zinke’s visit, En­ergy Fu­els wrote to the Interior De­part­ment ar­gu­ing there were many other known ura­nium de­posits within Bears Ears “that could pro­vide valu­able en­ergy and min­eral re­sources in the fu­ture” and urg­ing the de­part­ment to shrink the mon­u­ment away from any “ex­ist­ing or fu­ture op­er­a­tions.”

A bill in­tro­duced last month by Rep. John Cur­tis, R-Utah, would cod­ify Trump’s cuts to the mon­u­ment while ban­ning fur­ther drilling or min­ing within the orig­i­nal bound­aries. But en­vi­ron­men­tal groups say the bill has lit­tle chance of pass­ing at all, let alone be­fore the mon­u­ment is scaled back next month.

Troubles al­ready

“Come Fe­bru­ary, any­one can place a min­ing claim on the land,” said Greg Zim­mer­man, deputy direc­tor at the Cen­ter for Western Pri­or­i­ties, a con­ser­va­tion group.

At the end of a dirt road just 6 miles from the Grand Canyon’s South Rim, the ura­nium in­dus­try’s re­newed am­bi­tions, and chal­lenges, are on dis­play.

Three decades af­ter ex­ploratory drilling un­cov­ered ura­nium de­posits, pro­duc­tion at En­ergy Fu­els’ Canyon Mine is fi­nally start­ing up, the wheel above a 1,500-foot shaft slowly turn­ing dur­ing a re­cent visit. The com­pany calls Canyon Mine a “high-grade” project, with the po­ten­tial to com­pete with mines over­seas. It is al­ready run­ning into trou­ble. As work­ers drilled into the for­ma­tions that make up the re­gion’s dis­tinct rock lay­ers last year, they hit shal­low ground­wa­ter. The wa­ter flooded the mine’s shaft, forc­ing work­ers to pump the runoff – by then con­tam­i­nated with ura­nium – into open ponds, where they used in­dus­trial sprayers to speed evap­o­ra­tion. Those sprayers were present dur­ing a re­cent visit, and wa­ter could be seen from out­side the com­pound con­tin­u­ing to pour into a large evap­o­ra­tion pond.

En­ergy Fu­els of­fi­cials said hit­ting shal­low ground­wa­ter was to be ex­pected, and re­jected con­cerns that con­tam­i­na­tion could es­cape.

Still, Fred Till­man, an en­vi­ron­men­tal en­gi­neer with the U.S. Ge­o­log­i­cal Sur­vey, said dur­ing a re­cent visit to the mine that the ground­wa­ter flows in the re­gion were too com­plex to rule out the risk of con­tam­i­na­tion. “There are these big un­knowns about the po­ten­tial im­pacts on cul­tural re­sources, on bi­o­log­i­cal re­sources, on wa­ter re­sources,” Till­man said.

Even as troubles per­sist on the ground, the in­dus­try push­back has con­tin­ued.

In court, min­ing groups led by the Na­tional Min­ing As­so­ci­a­tion have chal­lenged a 20-year mora­to­rium on min­ing in the Grand Canyon wa­ter­shed, es­tab­lished in 2012 by the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion. A fed­eral court of ap­peals up­held the mora­to­rium last month.

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