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Inside Pinyon Plain Mine: The Grand Canyon uranium dispute from two points of view

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

“I wear a mask every time I come to the mine,” said Xipe Rivera, throwing on a gray jumpsuit and pair of boots. “Just because I don’t want to bring any of that home, you know.”

He’s a monitoring volunteer with the Indigenous-led initiative HaulNo!, which is opposed to the Pinyon Plain Mine, much like environmental groups such as the Sierra Club Grand Canyon Chapter, Center for Biological Diversity and Grand Canyon Trust.

At least twice a month, Rivera, sometimes by himself, has driven from his Flagstaff home to inspect the mine from the outside. This long ride takes almost an hour and half each way. Rivera has routinely made the trip ever since the mine’s operator, Energy Fuels, began extracting uranium ore in early January.

HaulNo! monitoring volunteer Xipe Rivera throws on a mask, gray jumpsuit and pair of boots as he prepares to monitor the Pinyon Plain Mine in May 2024.
Gabriel Pietrorazio/KJZZ
HaulNo! monitoring volunteer Xipe Rivera throws on a mask, gray jumpsuit and pair of boots as he prepares to monitor the Pinyon Plain Mine in May 2024.

Pockets of pinyon pines conceal the 14-acre facility, formerly known as Canyon Mine, nestled less than 10 miles south of Tusayan inside the Kaibab National Forest.

“They try to separate it from the Grand Canyon as much as possible, so people are less invested in knowing what’s going on,” Rivera said. “It probably cost them a good chunk of money, but they went through the trouble of changing it to Pinyon Plain Mine.”

This spot is also where President Joe Biden designated the Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni – Ancestral Footprints of the Grand Canyon National Monument last August.

His executive decision halted new uranium mining claims across nearly a million acres of federal lands near Grand Canyon National Park – except for the Pinyon Plain Mine – since it was grandfathered in by the U.S. General Mining Act of 1872.

HaulNo! monitoring volunteer Xipe Rivera points at a pile of uranium ore exposed to the elements at Pinyon Plain Mine.
Gabriel Pietrorazio/KJZZ
HaulNo! monitoring volunteer Xipe Rivera points at a pile of uranium ore exposed to the elements at Pinyon Plain Mine. 

That legislation has governed the mining of hard-rock minerals like gold, silver, copper and uranium across 350 million acres of federal public lands, mostly in the West and Alaska.

Today, the federal government owns roughly 640 million acres.

“That is ore, that is uranium ore,” said Rivera, pointing to a pile of gray rocks lying behind the edge of a chain-link fence, underneath the shade of a pinyon pine. “It’s a lot more than last time I was here. They touch the stuff with their bare hands, and I don’t understand, seriously.”

Then, Rivera turned on a drone, saying that “a journalism student donated this to us.”

Xipe Rivera of HaulNo! toggles the controls of a drone during a May 2024 monitoring visit at Pinyon Plain Mine.
Gabriel Pietrorazio/KJZZ
Xipe Rivera of HaulNo! toggles the controls of a drone during a May 2024 monitoring visit at Pinyon Plain Mine.

The drone’s propellers started spinning while it whizzed overhead to survey the entire operation from the sky. As Rivera toggled controls on his remote and snapped photos, he shared that a typical visit can last three to four hours.

“I forget a lot of times. I just get carried away, especially if there’s a lot of activity going on,” he said. “I have mixed feelings about nuclear energy altogether.”

The next day, third-generation miner Tyler Martin provided KJZZ News a tour of the operation in May. He’s the conventional mines safety superintendent for Pinyon Plain’s relatively young workforce of 35 employees.

A drone shot of Pinyon Plain Mine captured by Xipe Rivera of HaulNo! during a monitoring trip on May 10, 2024.
Xipe Rivera/HaulNo!
A drone shot of Pinyon Plain Mine captured by Xipe Rivera of HaulNo! during a monitoring trip on May 10, 2024.

They’re a mix of locals and commuters. More than a fourth of them reside around the Flagstaff area, but others come from much farther away. Some travel from Bullhead City, or even from other states, such as Utah or Colorado, driving seven to eight hours one way to work their weekly shift. A minimum of 40 hours of training is needed, Martin mentioned, before anyone can go underground into the mineshaft.

“We give them a toolbox, and we talk about the hazard recognition processes, trainings. There’s coaching, mentoring and those dad talks,” Martin said. “You know, pep talks. But when it’s time to chew, you let them know where they came up short.”

He once worked as the safety manager for the No. 10 shaft at Resolution Copper inside the Tonto National Forest. Public backlash against the Pinyon Plain Mine “far exceeds the scrutiny” he had ever dealt with amid the decades-long battle for Oak Flat against the San Carlos Apache Tribe.

“There’s lots of misconceptions that are associated with us,” Martin said. “When they talk about uranium, they talk about something that’s glowing yellow. They’re talking about ‘Back to the Future,’ 1.21 gigawatts. They think that it is yellowcake.”

He dismisses that imagery as sensational, saying the unprocessed ore doesn’t warrant those fears. To him, “it’s rocks.” But that same material has a different, more deadly meaning to the Navajo Nation.

The development rock stockpile, consisting of waste rock materials, can be seen from outside the fence line of the Pinyon Plain Mine.
Gabriel Pietrorazio/KJZZ
The development rock stockpile, consisting of waste rock materials, can be seen from outside the fence line of the Pinyon Plain Mine.

Assistant mine superintendent Matt Germansen is an environmental science graduate from Northern Arizona University and a longtime Flagstaff resident. He doesn’t deny the deadly legacy of uranium mining, but Germansen has been trying to reassure the Navajo Nation that the industry has changed.

“The tribal history, that rich history, that’s complicated, and, you know, a lot of times ugly,” Germansen said. “Energy Fuels is always trying to, you know, put our best foot forward, make sure we’re interacting with the community, showing them how it’s done now versus how it has been done in the past.”

Martin said the company’s miners undergo annual physicals as well as hearing, pulmonary function and respirator FIT tests. “All of these components are part of an industrial hygiene program that weren’t necessarily in place in those days.”

An analysis by the U.S. Forest Service estimated that 1.6 million pounds of uranium ore can be extracted from this mine. While some mines have more open-ended permits than others, Germansen described theirs as “a sealed document.”

The 14-acre Pinyon Plain Mine is concealed by pockets of pinyon pine trees within the Kaibab National Forest.
Gabriel Pietrorazio/KJZZ
The 14-acre Pinyon Plain Mine is concealed by pockets of pinyon pine trees within the Kaibab National Forest.

“There’s still mining that happens around the world [in Russia, China and Kazakhstan] that is going to extract until there’s nothing left, at all costs,” he said. “We have control over how we mine in America, in Arizona, where we have regulators that will make sure that our permit is protective of the environment and nearby communities, where we make sure that our miners are protected with their health and safety.”

“We’re watched closely, and we know it,” Germansen added. “No matter what we find, we will never go outside of those permitted boundaries, side to side, up and down. Our mine life is smaller, shorter because of that. It can be reclaimed safely, it can be returned back to public use for the rest of, you know, eternity.”

Mining is expected to occur at Pinyon Plain for at least 28 months, but it may be longer. As the facility tour continues, sirens buzz in the air, signaling the start of a muck cycle, when blasted rock from underground is hoisted nearly 1,500 feet to the surface.

A skip containing uranium ore and development rock is hoisted to the surface by the 1,470-foot Pinyon Plain mineshaft.
/
Gabriel Pietrorazio/KJZZ

“So you can see the shift wheel on the top of the head frame spinning, that skip is going to slowly come up,” Germansen explained. “From there, if it’s uranium ore, it’ll be taken into the intermediate ore stockpile.”

Not long after, Martin rummaged through an amassing stockpile, weighing over a ton, with his bare hands. Some rocks are gray, others are greener because fragments of bornite and copper oxidize. Bornite is often referred to as “peacock ore,” because of its spectacle of bright colors and iridescence.

More than a ton of uranium ore from the Pinyon Plain Mine sits on an ore pad, which is permitted to hold up to 13,000 pounds.
Gabriel Pietrorazio/KJZZ
More than a ton of uranium ore from the Pinyon Plain Mine sits on an ore pad, which is permitted to hold up to 13,000 pounds. 

He insisted that workers are not required to wear gloves or respirators even while handling this radioactive material on the ore pad.

“This is what people are concerned about,” Martin said. “You ready? Here, I’ll even let you touch it. Feel the difference, though, between if you were to pick up a piece of gravel that size?”

“You know the best part about that is?” he asked. “At the end of the day when we’re done, you wash your hands, you’ve decontaminated. It’s that simple. The biggest challenge with any of this is we keep it wetted down, because dust. Dust is the bad part.”

Jonathan Samet, interim chair of the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health, at the Colorado School of Public Health, agreed.

“So, physical risk of handling ore, not so much, basically,” Samet said. “But the real problem for the miners is what's in the air.”

Pinyon Plain's conventional mines safety superintendent Tyler Martin picks up a piece of uranium ore from the stockpile with his bare hand.
Gabriel Pietrorazio/KJZZ
Pinyon Plain's conventional mines safety superintendent Tyler Martin picks up a piece of uranium ore from the stockpile with his bare hand.

The University of Arizona Cancer Center’s Monica Yellowhair, interim director of community outreach, engagement and tribal relations, echoed his concerns.

“Trying to just wash your hands and all of that is fine, externally, but still, you have that increased risk of breathing in fine dust particles,” she said. “Especially if they’re not wearing respirator gear, because that’s how a lot of the miners in the past have developed lung cancers.”

Back at the mine, Germansen emphasized that it’s essential to keep the ore pile wet, spraying it to limit the risk of dust getting swept away in the wind. He downplayed the hazard, referring to it as a “regulatory monitoring point.”

“But as far as a concern goes,” Germansen said, “there’s not really an issue with having, you know, windblown uranium dust. It hasn’t been an issue.”

Energy Fuels is permitted to hold up to 13,000 tons on the ore pad at any time, “so we’re well, well below our threshold,” said Germansen, mentioning that they “have sufficient supply on hand, so that there’s planned trucking in place in the future.”

Assistant mine superintendent Matt Germansen at Pinyon Plain Mine walks to the uranium ore stockpile.
Gabriel Pietrorazio/KJZZ

Germansen has been an Energy Fuels employee for more than a decade, but his mining career began here at “this little postage mine.”

“I’ve been in uranium my whole career, so it’s always been sensitive. I started my first day at what was Canyon Mine, now Pinyon Plain Mine. I worked at two other mines since then, and came back,” he said. “But now, I work at a mine that’s inside of a national monument that predates that national monument. It’s incredibly exciting to see ore on the pad right now. For me, I’ve got a lot invested in this.”

Martin also stressed they’ve been successful with their ventilation systems so far, which, in his words, “dilutes everything, renders it harmless and carries it away, and we continue to improve them.”

FIT tests are meant to ensure that respirators are tight-fitting. They’re also supposed to guard against any leaks in the seal that can be caused by weight loss or gain, facial hair growth or dental procedures.

A scruffy beard, Martin believes, is a sign of their success.

“At one working level, you’re required to be clean-shaven, and to have a respirator FIT test, and you can see I have a beard,” Martin said. “So when you see me clean-shaven, then we know that it's time to go to respirators, and everybody across the property will be that same way.”

A drone shot of Red Butte in the distance is captured by Xipe Rivera of HaulNo! during a monitoring trip on May 10, 2024.
Xipe Rivera/HaulNo!
A drone shot of Red Butte in the distance is captured by Xipe Rivera of HaulNo! during a monitoring trip on May 10, 2024. 

Martin and Germansen recognize that Pinyon Plain Mine and by extension, Energy Fuels, both have plenty of detractors. There’s a perception that the uranium mining industry has a bad reputation, especially in the Southwest.

“We’ve got folks that are flying drones, sit out in the trees and take pictures, try and push through the gate in order to come on-site,” Martin said. “You’re not going to change some people’s view, no matter what you do. They do not like mining. That’s fine.”

“We don’t want to let that distract us from doing our jobs,” added Germansen. “Same thing for any other mining company in this country, because we already know we can’t do it the wrong way anymore. It doesn’t benefit Energy Fuels to do anything other than the right way.”

Gabriel Pietrorazio is a correspondent who reports on tribal natural resources for KJZZ.
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