Kanab Creek Uranium Mess

Kanab Creek as seen from Gunsight Point
Photo by Richard Mayol

Crumbo climbs atop a ten foot pile of debris for a better look. Mounds of crushed rock, metal building, steep-sided pit lined with thick plastic, and 60-foot, steel-beam hoist are enclosed by an eight-foot tall chain-link fence, rimmed with three sagging strands of barbed wire. The 20-acre industrial site looks to be about the size of a Wall-Mart parking lot. “Yep,” he says, “the pond has maybe a foot of water.”

Kim Crumbo and I met in Kanab, Utah earlier that morning before departing for three days to inspect uranium mines located in the Kanab Creek watershed. The drainage is the largest tributary to the Colorado River north of Grand Canyon National Park. Kim left his career with the National Park Service and now works for the Grand Canyon Wildlands Council.

It was early February, clear and seasonably cold. The arid clarity of air brought brilliance to Yellowstone Mesa, silhouetting the western horizon as we turned south on the 61-mile dirt road bisecting the Arizona Strip between Utah and Grand Canyon. The road ends at the North Rim’s much-photographed Toroweap Overlook. “Toroweap” is a Paiute word meaning “dry or barren valley.” All lands along our route were once home to Paiute people.

Our first stop was the Kanab North uranium mine where 260,800 tons of ore were removed between 1988 and December 1990, when the price paid for uranium dropped to a point where it was no longer profitable to mine. Its owners locked the gate, drove away, and sold the mine to Canadian-based Denison Mines. In 1992, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) classified the mine as “on standby and maintenance,” meaning that little has happened there in two decades.

As the price of uranium rose in 2006, so too did interest in reopening Kanab North and three other previously established mines within Grand Canyon watersheds. Thousands of new claims were also filed as uranium industry began another boom. Grand Canyon Trust worked with Arizona Congressman Raul Grijalva in introducing legislation to stop new uranium claims around the Canyon and supported the recently approved 20-year ban by the Secretary of the Interior. Mining advocates argued against any new restrictions, saying that they were unnecessary and were bad for business.

Industry Objections

Kanab-North Mine
Photo by Don Bills/USGS

Uranium speculator Dr. Karen Wenrich testified before a Grijalva-chaired subcommittee of the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources on July 21, 2009. “The uranium industry has undergone a significant evolution in the level of environmental understanding and management practices over the past thirty years. The mining impact from 1980-1995 when all mining ceased on the Kanab and Coconino Plateaus is so negligible that visitors today can no longer find where the three former reclaimed mines were located.”

Later she complained about testimony by the chairman of the Kaibab Band of Paiute Indians that companies “left, leaving them with the mess.” Wenrich responded: “Such a statement is irresponsible and has no factual basis, and can only be intended to mislead uninformed citizens to turn against the mining industry. All of the mines that had been depleted were reclaimed as per BLM requirements. The mines that were not reclaimed were placed on standby and requirements for sampling and monitoring these facilities on standby has been performed on a regular basis. This author challenges anyone to show a ‘mess’ on the Kanab Plateau. There was no negative impact to water, land, vegetation, air, or humans.”

Politicians soon chimed in with protests to the proposed ban on new claims. Arizona Congressman Ben Quayle said “the Department of Interior’s own study shows that uranium mining in this part of Arizona poses little to no environmental risk.”  Arizona Governor Jan Brewer echoed that agency studies show that “uranium mining – conducted lawfully and with proper oversight – represents a minimal environmental risk.”

USGS Findings

Early in 2010, the U.S. Geological Survey published a peer-reviewed report on the “effects of 1980s uranium mining in the Kanab Creek area of Northern Arizona.” The study was the first systematic sampling of mine sites since they were abandoned two decades ago. As it turns out, there is no truth to Dr. Wenrich’s claim that the BLM has been monitoring these sites.

At the Kanab North mine, the study found: “Mined waste rock, uranium ore, pond sludge, and local wind- and water-dispersed fine particles on the unreclaimed mine site (all of which contained high concentrations uranium and other trace element constituents such as arsenic) were exposed to the ambient environment for about 20 years at the partially mined site….Erosion within the site has moved sediment into the lined pond.” Sludge from the bottom of the pond contained 1,800 parts per million of uranium.

The USGS survey was conducted during the heat of August. The lined pond at Kanab North was nearly dry. But it was holding water when we visited this winter. Given high concentrations of contamination that the study found in its sludge, the pond easily exceeds 30 parts per billion, which is considered safe for human consumption.

A flock of birds flies away from the pool as we approach. Cloven hoofs imprint dust near the padlocked entrance gate.  A two-foot gap beneath it confirms where animals are accessing water within the fenced-in area. A golden eagle perches on a nearby power pole. No limits have been set for wildlife use of uranium-poisoned water.

The USGS study shows that contamination radiates well beyond the 20-acre mine site. Soil sampled from as far away as 420 feet outside of the fence has an average uranium concentration that is more than ten times background concentration. “Wind appears to be the dominant process dispersing material offsite.” Clearly, findings from the Kanab North mining operation are part of the “mess” that is now polluting aboriginal homelands of Paiute people.

As for mines “that were reclaimed as per BLM requirements,” USGS found contamination at every one of them. The Hack Canyon reclamation sites, for example, “…were eroded by floods that exposed covered uranium-enriched mined waste-rock and ore fragments in a terrace adjacent to the stream channel…. Fragments of material from these floods were found in the channel and on the floodplain for as much as a half mile downstream from the reclaimed site.”

More Messes Ahead

Denison has been operating the Arizona 1 uranium mine since 2009 and is readying its nearby Pinenut mine to reopen. During our February visit to these sites, we observed herons, ducks, and other birds using the nearly full mine ponds. Like Kanab North, both mines were permitted by the BLM and Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) and fully developed during the 1980s before being put on “standby.”

We recently learned that Pinenut’s mine shaft is flooded with millions of gallons of water, which is inundating exposed uranium ore. ADEQ reports that pumping from Pinenut has filled the pond to its capacity. Millions of more gallons must be removed from the mine shaft before mining can recommence. State water permits do not provide for the possible need to find somewhere safe to dispose of excess water because uranium companies insist that mine shafts on the Arizona Strip are “always dry.” Nor does ADEQ require groundwater monitoring for possible contamination

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