The people we expect to protect us and our environment are failing us. And I’m not referring to bills for reducing emissions and developing green energy. (More)

A 19th century boom town

Back in the 1980s, I lived in a Colorado mining town. It was going through a bust cycle, as the two major mining companies maintained only basic operations at the molybdenum and silver mines, but those two mines weren’t the source of my lessons about the dangers of mining.

During the 1860s, placer miners had discovered gold in a place they called California Gulch. This led to an influx of miners who discovered not gold, but silver. Lots and lots of silver. By the 1880s, Leadville, as it came to be known, was a boom town with hotels, and an opera house. It had become the center of the financial world: a million telegrams a day passed over those mountains. Dow Jones was founded there. Doc Holliday took up residence until his tuberculosis sent him down to a lower elevation in Glenwood Springs. Marshall Fields made his fortune there, as did a number of others, like Horace Tabor, Meyer Guggenheim, and the Unsinkable Molly Brown. It was a place where legends came and legends were born.

It seemed the glory days would never end. But they did, abruptly, when Meyer Guggenheim took umbrage with the other silver barons. He opened huge silver mines in Mexico, flooded the world market, and the bottom dropped out. Leadville went bust.

The boom still echoes

Left behind on nearly every mountain slope, however, were dozens and dozens of mines. I used to hike among them and marvel at how much a couple of men could accomplish with a pick and shovel, a pulley and a mule. All those mines had been dug the hard way, and when you saw the heap of tailings, like small mountains beside all those adits, you got an appreciation of how hard those people labored.

But the key word in the above paragraph was “tailings.” The useless earth got piled and left as they dug ever farther for the vein of silver. A hundred years later those tailings remained.

Apart from my first shock at how much work had been involved with only minimal tools, I noticed something else: nothing grew on those tailings. Nothing. After a hundred years they were still too toxic for even a weed or blade of grass.

But I didn’t think about the extended effects of that toxicity until we became an EPA Superfund site, most likely because Denver, which got a lot of its drinking water from our part of the mountains, noted elements in the water that weren’t safe. Certainly we were under a lot of restrictions already to protect the Denver water supply, but who would have thought of this? Those tailings were not only toxic where they stood, but every time it rained, toxins leached into the ground water and down those hills. A hundred-year-old mess had to be cleaned up for the public good.

Not far up the mountains from us was the AMAX Climax mine, shut down in my time, but once one of the world’s great molybdenum mines. Each time I drove past, I couldn’t escape noticing their huge tailings ponds. They sat there glimmering with colors that came from heavy metals and I often wondered what would happen if one of those earthen dams crumbled. Shut down or not, those tailings ponds had to be watched and maintained – forever, most likely.

Colorado mine adits were often barred and marked with the radiation hazard trefoil. Lots of uranium in those parts. Sadly, tailings were used to make cement, and that cement was used in a lot of public buildings, including schools. While I was still living there, it became a scandal: kids were getting irradiated at school.

Doing it again

Now we look at the proposal done deal from our own Forest Service:

With minimal public notice and no formal environmental review, the Forest Service has approved a permit allowing a British mining company to explore for uranium just outside Grand Canyon National Park, less than three miles from a popular lookout over the canyon’s southern rim.

The reason for this decision is the General Mining Act of 1872 which as interpreted by the Forest Service is:

The 1872 Mining Law specifically authorizes the taking of valuable mineral commodities from Public Domain Lands. A ‘No Action’ alternative is not an option that can be considered.

When the news reached the public in early 2008, the firestorm began. The Navajo and Havasupai, among others, raised Cain, justifiably since they well remember the increase in cancers that resulted from past uranium mining in the area. They don’t even want trucks carrying uranium to pass through their reservations. Moreover, some of that land is sacred to them.

Nearby, other communities raised concerns about pollution of drinking water.

In 2009, Ken Salazar responded to rising complaints by taking public lands off the table for mining until a full study could be accomplished. Unfortunately, this won’t eliminate the thousands of claims already made, or prevent test drilling.

There are as many as 10,000 existing mining claims on BLM and U.S. Forest Service lands near the Grand Canyon for all types of hard-rock exploration. Some 1,100 uranium mining claims are within five miles of the Grand Canyon National Park.

The protections offered by Salazar won’t include uranium mining claims already filed near the Grand Canyon an official said. It’s not possible to prevent existing claims under the General Mining Act of 1872 unless Congress was to appropriate money for the department to buy up the claims, he said.

And as of January 2010:

Grand Canyon, AZ — In defiance of legal challenges and a U.S. Government moratorium, Canadian company Denison Mines has started mining uranium on the north rim of the Grand Canyon. According to the Arizona Daily Sun the mine has been operating since December 2009.

Denison plans on extracting 335 tons of uranium ore per day out of the “Arizona 1 Mine”, which is set to operate four days per week. The hazardous ore will be hauled by truck more than 300 miles through towns and communities to the company’s White Mesa mill located near Blanding, Utah.

After being pressured by environmental groups, U.S. Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar initially called for a two-year moratorium on new mining claims in a buffer zone of 1 million acres around Grand Canyon National Park, but the moratorium doesn’t include existing claims such as Denison’s. The moratorium also doesn’t address mining claims outside of the buffer zone.

So it’s begun. Representative Grijalva is fighting the lonely battle without assistance from the state’s two senators.

The mining companies claim that with modern techniques, the land would be fully restored.

What do you think?

Is the production of uranium for nuclear energy more important to battle climate change around the world than the concerns of local people that their lands and waters may become polluted?

Do you think the mines can truly “restore” the land to the safe and beautiful habitat it presently is?

What do you think of the Forest Service granting permission to the miners without impact studies or public input?

The 1872 Mining Law was designed to protect the claims of small prospectors. It’s unlikely congress foresaw these possibilities. Do you think the law needs to be changed? If so, how?

Tomorrow: the tale of uranium tailings