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Uranium transport through northern Arizona is about to begin. Why some are concerned

Coverage of tribal natural resources is supported in part by Catena Foundation

Conservation groups have asked the U.S. Forest Service to lay out how it will manage mined uranium as it’s transported across northern Arizona. KJZZ posed those concerns to Energy Fuels, the company that owns the Pinyon Plain Mine just south of the Grand Canyon.

Energy Fuels plans to start transporting extracted uranium from the Pinyon Plain Mine across the Navajo Nation and to its processing mill in Utah before the summer.

The Navajo government has been outspoken about the uranium being shipped across tribal lands. President Buu Nygren addressed those concerns last week to the Navajo Council:

"I asked the honorable resource and development committee to pass uranium transport regulations that Navajo EPA and DOJ will have ready for approval within the next month," he said.

The tribe hasn’t been able to stop the transports on U.S. highways like 64 and 89, however. According to Forest Service information, the company is approved to use two routes that traverse the Navajo Nation on the way to its White Mesa Mill in Utah.

The conservation groups have asked the U.S. government whether the public will be notified when hauling begins. KJZZ asked Curtis Moore, Energy Fuels' senior vice president of marketing. 

"We have agreed to voluntarily provide some government stakeholders with notice, including the Forest Service, the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, the Navajo Nation, Coconino County and others," Moore said.

Moore said the trucks have to be marked and placarded. In fact, the company’s transportation plan reads that trucks must have 3 inch lettering that reads "Radioactive LSA" — meaning Low Specific Activity material — and another sign reading "For radioactive use only" on both sides of the hauled trailer.

"Uranium ore is just rock. So it’s not explosive. It’s not flammable. It’s not volatile. It’s not corrosive. It’s not reactive. It doesn’t present hazards like they’re hauling fuel, hauling gasoline, diesel, chemicals, propane. That’s actually quite a bit more dangerous than uranium ore, so really people have nothing to be concerned about even in the event of an accident," Moore said.

The Sierra Club’s Sandy Bahr said the organization is concerned about people breathing in uranium ore dust. And she asked whether public safety agencies are prepared to deal with an accident.

"Notification alone doesn’t address, you know, are there plans in place? Are there emergency responders, and local governments and residents, are they, is there going to be a plan? Will they be trained to deal with these types of materials?" she said.

KJZZ wanted to understand just what danger, if any, uranium ore trucked through the area would pose to the public. We asked Dr. Frank Lovecchio, the medical director of clinical research at Arizona State University.

How would he feel driving by a load of uranium ore in the back of a truck?

"Let’s say there’s a good seal at the tarp and there’s no dust coming out. I think that would be safe," Lovecchio said.

But that’s just part of his answer.

"Let’s say that it wasn’t a good seal, I think there’s potential you can get ill. And what I mean by that is if you’re close to it and you start inhaling it," Lovecchio said.

Chronic exposure, such as to people mining the ore, poses the greater danger, he noted. 

KJZZ also asked Kaibab National Forest officials to weigh in on the plan, since the mine sits in that particular national forest. But they haven’t responded.

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Fronteras Desk senior editor Michel Marizco is an award-winning investigative reporter based in Flagstaff.