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A report says this Grand Canyon uranium mine has pumped toxic water. The operator says it's normal

Grand Canyon
Jackie Hai/KJZZ
The Grand Canyon's South Rim.
Coverage of tribal natural resources is supported in part by Catena Foundation

A new report shows that the uranium mine near Grand Canyon National Park has pumped millions of gallons of toxic water since it opened last year. The uranium mine’s operator and the state of Arizona say it’s a normal part of the mining process.

The Grand Canyon Trust used publicly available water data compiled by the state’s Department of Environmental Quality to show that not only were there millions of gallons of water pumped over the course of 2023 but also a spike in heavy metals measured in that water since the mine started operating last December.

Energy Fuels operates the mine. It and ADEQ deny there’s a problem and instead say that what the study’s scientists called flood problems are actually anticipated and were factored into the state permit for the mine.

The Trust is a nonprofit serving the Grand Canyon and the Colorado Plateau. It says in the last quarter of 2023, uranium levels spiked to six times what the EPA says is safe for drinking water. Lead measured 243 times and arsenic 812 times. For context, the measured amounts are thousands of times higher than they were in 2022. Uranium levels were 150 times more than the year before. Of immediate concern is drinking water. The mine sits atop an aquifer that feeds into the Grand Canyon and is the only source for the Havasupai tribe’s drinking water.

"The biggest risk is going to come as more of that ore body is mined out," said the Trust's Energy Director Amber Reimondo. "More mineralized rock is exposed to the elements and then when the mining company closes down and walks away and is no longer actively managing that groundwater inflow, that’s where the biggest risk comes from in our view."

A yellow rock on black background
Getty Images
A piece of uranium ore.

Energy Fuels' senior vice-president of marketing Curtis Moore said the Trust is "scaring people" and attempting to undermine federal and state regulators.

"They are honestly just twisting the facts, twisting the science to try to make very very normal things sound outrageous," he said. "It’s really causing harm at this point and making people afraid for no reason."

Reimondo’s group is concerned that the mine water could seep into the ground above an important aquifer that provides groundwater to the Havasupai tribe. And they point to a recent University of New Mexico study that shows fractures in the area rock, risking seepage.

"This idea that they’ll close off groundwater flow into the mine shaft is really not realistic," Reimondo said. "They might be able to close off groundwater flow for some period of time but they will not be able to keep groundwater from flowing into that space forever."

Moore says the water is being constantly pumped out into a lined evaporation pond at the surface and not coming into contact with the aquifers.

"All mines have some water. That water mixes up with some of the ore and some things dissolve. But you contain it, you pump it to the surface. That’s why we have the systems in place, to prevent that stuff from going anywhere," he said.

After the mine closes, Moore said the company agreed to monitor the area for 30 years. The company is counting on thousands of feet of what he says is impermeable rock that will keep the water collected in the mine from seeping into an aquifer below, the Redwall-Muav aquifer.

Moore said the aquifer is under deep pressure that would repel anything trying to enter.

If it were to leech into the aquifer, he said the water will then be pumped out.

ADEQ declined an interview with the Fronteras Desk. But in a statement, communications director Caroline Oppelman said the Grand Canyon Trust’s numbers were derived from the lined sump at the bottom of the shaft which is collecting mineralized metals like uranium, lead, and arsenic.

"It is important to note that there have not been any “flooding problems” at the Mine," Oppelman wrote. "The water quality samples referred to by the Grand Canyon Trust are of water collected in the lined sump at the bottom of the Mine shaft, and sampled at the pipe that discharges to the lined impoundment, which contains and manages the collected sump water. The APP permit requires the liners in both the sump and the impoundment to ensure mine-impacted water stays out of the environment. This water management is a normal part of the mining process, not to be confused with flooding problems or events, and was anticipated and factored into the APP permit."

ADEQ called the water management a normal part of the mining process.

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