Diné speakers: No uranium mining on Canyon rim

By Cindy Yurth
Navajo Times

FLAGSTAFF, Jan. 13, 2011

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Diné environmentalists on Jan. 6 joined a chorus of about 60 area citizens who spoke against issuing air and water quality permits for new uranium mines near the rim of the Grand Canyon, with one calling the hearing an "insult."

"It's insulting that a meeting like this is happening while our people are still suffering because of the legacy of uranium mining and milling," said Diné musician and activist Klee Benally of Flagstaff.

The hearing, sponsored by the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, was to take public input on the issuance of Class II air quality permits for Denison Mines' proposed EZ and Pinenut mines, located on the Kanab Plateau about 35 miles southwest of Fredonia, Ariz., and the Canyon Mine, located about six miles southeast of Tusayan. Also sought is a general aquifer protection permit for the EZ mine.

The permits would allow the ADEQ to monitor the air and water at the mines, although critics argued that most of the sampling would be done by the mining company itself.

"It's the fox watching the henhouse," said Flagstaff Mayor Sara Pressler, who also spoke against issuing the permits.

Uranium-rich breccia tubes - vertical fissures filled in by solidified ash and lava - dot both rims of the Grand Canyon. Heavily mined in the 1970s and '80s, the area was mostly abandoned in the '90s when the price of uranium dropped.

Rising prices have made the area attractive to mining companies again. According to the ADEQ, more than 500 breccia pipe targets are being actively explored by at least 11 companies.

Some of the old mines, most notably the Orphan Mine above the Bright Angel Trail, left radioactive tailings that drain into washes in the area. But the ADEQ says modern regulations would not allow that to happen - that's the whole reason behind the monitoring permits.

Most of the Navajos who spoke said they're upset the government would even consider allowing new mines to open when about 1,000 abandoned mines still exist on the Navajo Nation, poisoning the earth and leaching into water supplies.

"Why are we not considering that legacy?" Benally asked. "Why aren't we cleaning up the water in Cameron and other communities before we allow new mining?"

Added Nikki Alex, who said she had worked with the federal Radiation Exposure Compensation Program, "I come here today to give a voice to the young people. The cleanup will be left up to me and generations after me."

Hertha Woody, a Diné member of the Grand Canyon Trust, noted that although the mines are quite a distance from the Navajo Nation, radioactive ore will have to be transported along the western and northern edges of the Navajo Nation to the White Mesa Mill near Blanding, Utah.

"My sister, my daughter and I drive those routes," she said. "I don't want to be following those trucks."

Other speakers argued that the ADEQ's requirement that the truck beds be covered only with a secured tarp doesn't do much to assuage their fears. In materials supplied to the state agency, Denison said a person standing at the roadside would be exposed to just 0.3 millirems per hour from a passing ore truck - much less than he would receive from, for example, a chest X-ray (40 millirems).

On Jan. 6 outgoing Navajo Nation Council Delegate Thomas Walker (Birdsprings/Leupp/Tolani Lake) attempted to introduce legislation to prohibit the transportation "of any and all uranium ore over and through Navajo Nation Land," but the Council lost its quorum before the bill could be brought up in the Jan. 7 special session.

Still, Woody pointed out, the Navajo Nation, its Western Agency, the National Congress of American Indians, and the Hualapai Tribe have all passed resolutions opposing uranium mining on their lands and sacred areas.

That was confirmed by Dawn Hubbs, program manager for the Hualapai Department of Cultural Resources, who said the federally controlled land that Denison wants to mine is part of the Hualapai's traditional range and nearby Red Butte is sacred to the tribe.

Hubbs said the Hualapai, who operate "a robust tourism operation," are "very alarmed" at the prospect of uranium mining on their traditional lands.

"We look to you as trustees of our environment," she told the ADEQ representatives.

Pressler and others argued that Denison is a foreign company (headquartered in Vancouver, B.C.) and that the mines would do nothing for the local economy - indeed, they might negatively impact Grand Canyon tourism.

Denison has said the combined workforce at the mines, which would operate for about 10 years, could be around 60 people, of whom 60 percent (36 people) would be hired locally.

The company would be under federal requirements to completely "remediate" the mines once they are spent, although Alicyn Gitlin of the Sierra Club's Grand Canyon Chapter said the community already has reason to distrust Denison.

According to a press release on the chapter's Web site, the Mine Safety and Health Administration has issued more than 60 citations since 2009 relating to operations at Denison's Arizona 1 mine north of Grand Canyon and the company's Pandora uranium mine in Utah, where there was a mining fatality last year.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a notice of violation to Denison in 2010 for starting the Arizona 1 mine without obtaining Clean Air Act permits relating to radon emissions, and conservation groups and tribes are suing the Bureau of Land Management in federal court for allowing Denison to open Arizona 1 in 2009 without updating 1980s-era mining plans and environmental reviews.

Public comment on the permits will close tomorrow, Jan. 14. Written comments may be sent to Trevor Baggiore, Air Quality Deputy Director, ADEQ, 1110 W. Washington St., 3415-A-1, Phoenix, AZ  85007. Comments can also be e-mailed to Baggiore at tb4@azdeq.gov.

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