Column: Salazar's mining decision was a political one
Secretary of the Interior Salazar's decision - to extend the 2-year moratorium on mining claims and choosing the withdrawal of 1 million acres of land from mineral entry for 20 years as the preferred alternative for the final Environmental Impact Study - was a political one. It is not supported in any way by the draft EIS that was prepared to help inform that decision. The draft EIS, inadequate and largely biased against uranium exploration and mining, does not make the case that uranium mining outside the Grand Canyon National Park will threaten the park, its natural resources, tourism or the water quality of its springs or the Colorado River itself.
The draft EIS is a document that is so poorly researched and written that the BLM will be in violation of the NEPA statutes should they publish a final EIS without first writing and publishing for comment a supplemental draft EIS that more adequately addresses the numerous comments submitted by myself and others of the current draft. It is really that bad.
It is extremely frustrating that this entire withdrawal issue is based on the outright lies, half-truths, and other misrepresentations by the opponents of uranium mining in Northern Arizona. For example, the opponents of uranium mining would have people believe that uranium mining will take place in the Grand Canyon National Park, on the shores of the Colorado River, or on the rim of the canyon itself. All of these claims are lies. The boundaries of the park were set to take into account the multiple-use designation that included uranium mining on federal lands surrounding the park.
The idea that uranium mining could in anyway contaminate the Colorado River is another falsehood. There are about 30 breccia pipes within the Grand Canyon that contain ore grade uranium mineralization that is currently (and naturally) eroding into the Colorado River. The Colorado River itself carries a natural uranium load of about 120,000 pounds of dissolved uranium in the water that flows through the canyon each year. In addition to this, the natural silt load of the Colorado River transports an additional 50,000 pounds of uranium annually. However, this transport of uranium is minor compared to the 818,000 pounds per year of uranium transported by the silt load in the Colorado River prior to the construction of the two major dams on this river. (The dams now trap the old silt-bound uranium load as lake bottom sediments above each dam). This was almost equivalent to washing the entire uranium content of a single high grade uranium breccia pipe ore body contained in a mine like the Arizona One down the Colorado River every year!
To even suggest that modern uranium mining would, in anyway, meaningfully add to the natural-dissolved or silt-transported uranium loading of the Colorado River and thus "contaminate" the river is a fabrication meant to scare the uninformed. By the standards of the opponents of uranium mining, the Colorado River is already horribly contaminated with natural uranium sources and should be banned as a source of water for all time. However, this is false. Rivers move silt and always have dissolved metals in them, including uranium. It is what rivers do!
The related claim promoted by supporters of the withdrawal that uranium mining would "contaminate" the ground water and springs surrounding the Grand Canyon is based on the idea that the ground water is in a pristine state. That mining uranium in a breccia pipe will pollute the ground water near the pipe and that this water will then move through miles of geologic structures undiluted and undiminished to springs and wells near and in the Grand Canyon and then be consumed by people and wildlife is simply not true. If it was, the thousands of uranium mineralized breccia pipes that exist around and within the Grand Canyon would have already polluted the existing ground water with uranium and other metals so as to forever make the water unusable.
The bottoms of these breccia pipes sit in the regional aquifer of the Redwall Limestone ("R-aquifer") and are mineralized with uranium to various degrees. For millions of years these thousands of breccia pipes have been "leaking" uranium and other metals into the ground water.
Why then, is the ground water in the R-aquifer not already hugely contaminated by millions of years of natural uranium leakage? The reasons are several-fold but quite simple: the area in the breccia pipe where the highest grades of uranium are located is separated vertically from the R-aquifer by hundreds of feet of highly impermeable rock layers. The rock in the deeper sections of a breccia pipe (above the present day water table) are impermeable to rapid water transport, but instead very slowly transport water on a time scale of thousands of years. The lightly mineralized lower sections of a breccia pipe that are seated in the saturated R-aquifer emit a "natural" plume of uranium and other metals into the R-aquifer that gets thoroughly mixed and diluted, however, into the huge water reservoir that is the slowly moving ground water beneath the Colorado Plateau. The uranium and other metals coming from these breccia pipes is simply diluted into harmless amounts the same way that uranium is diluted in the Colorado River. In other words, the sheer volume of water involved 'waters down' the very small amount of uranium naturally escaping breccia pipes.
In addition, the rocks in the R-aquifer contain minerals that take uranium out of its dissolved state in the water and lock it up within these minerals. The rock units of the R-aquifer act like a sponge and suck the uranium out of the water. These are among the reasons that thousands of breccia pipes "naturally" leaking uranium and other metals don't contaminate the ground water around the Grand Canyon to levels that are harmful to people and other life forms living in the area and those living downstream of the Grand Canyon.
Another misrepresentation is that the land being withdrawn represents only 12 percent of the breccia pipe uranium resource in northern Arizona. This is untrue. Currently, research by industry indicates that the 1 million acres proposed for withdrawal would reduce the northern Arizona uranium resource still available for mining by 76 percent. This is because the lands proposed for withdrawal host the highest amount of uranium per breccia pipe compared to the breccia pipes found in lands outside this area. This is, in fact, the reason why most of the mining claims covering breccia pipe uranium prospects are in this 1 million acre parcel and not elsewhere: the lands proposed for withdrawal are the sweet spot for high quality uranium breccia pipes. Understand, nearly all of the thousands of breccia pipes in the USGS's most favored area for uranium endowment have uranium in them to some degree, but breccia pipes that have a mineable 2 million pounds or more of uranium are rare, and nearly all of these are located within the proposed withdrawal area!
After a withdrawal, the remaining lands open to uranium exploration and mining would be those lands least likely to contain economic amounts of uranium in a breccia pipe.
The fact that the draft EIS does not address such issues is a disgrace. The draft EIS itself is a disgrace and represents not the best science, but an attempt to create the most uncertainty with the least amount of actual analysis possible.
My small exploration firm is an LLC and is American-owned, many other exploration companies with claims in Northern Arizona are American-owned as well. The fact that VANE Minerals and Denison Mines are British- and Canadian-based public companies, respectively, is neither here nor there. Any American can own these companies with a click of a mouse. What is sure, is that a withdrawal will make forfeit without compensation the tens of thousands (my case) or the millions of dollars that exploration companies have spent in good faith exploring Northern Arizona to provide uranium for our nation's nuclear reactors.
So my question is this, is a withdrawal policy based on deceit ever good policy?
President Obama promised to use the best science available to make decisions within his administration. This President has shown himself no different than the Bush administration in this regard. Ideology trumps science and political payback and pandering trumps all.