On April 7, a U.S. federal judge in Arizona denied a request to halt new uranium mining at a private site six miles from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. The decision came on the exact day the national non-profit American Rivers named the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon the "Most Endangered River" of 2015. Threatened by a number of issues, including a massive real estate development and a gondola project on the canyon's East Rim, it was the controversial uranium mining that got the first green light.
Conservation advocates were, not surprisingly, disappointed in the decision. Katie Davis of the Center for Biological Diversity said the mining project "could haunt the Grand Canyon region for decades to come."
Most immediately, however, new mining activity could cause problems for Tusayan, population 576, at the gateway to the South Rim. More than 4 million people pass through the town on their way to Grand Canyon National Park every year and, currently, it gets its water from an underground aquifer. But the Canyon Mine sits on top of the same aquifer, and if uranium leaches into the groundwater, everything is endangered — including Tusayan’s water supply.
Conservation groups oppose the mining and massive real estate and commercial development — 2,200 homes and upwards of three million square feet of retail space in Tusayan. But the new mining threat raised the possibility that the town, as well as the developers behind the city's development, could come out on the side of the conservationists: opposed to the mine.
Currently the town finds itself split. It supports the development project but is opposed to the mine. "We have continuing concerns about the uranium mining impacting our drinking water from the aquifer due to accidents or leaks," Greg Bryan, the mayor of Tusayan, says.
Stilo, on the other hand, doesn't seem to be worried about a mine contaminating the water underneath those homes. That's because, prior to the recent court ruling, the company had already researched alternative water sources, and was planning to rely on something other than the aquifer: bringing water in by truck or train, or even using a former coal slurry pipeline to draw water directly from the Colorado River near Laughlin, Nevada. Drilling more wells into the aquifer was, a Stilo representative told Grand Canyon News in March, "certainly an alternative, [but] not a desired alternative that we are focusing on."
Stilo representative Andy Jacobs said the company has stayed out of the uranium mining issue thus far, and that "a mine reopening would not affect our strategy at this point."
Regardless, conservation advocates are still concerned that the Stilo development could turn to the aquifer for water and drain it significantly. The aquifer powers many of the springs on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, as well as Havasu Falls, the internationally famous backpacking destination. The village of Supai, which is the gateway to Havasu Falls and sees upwards of 20,000 tourists per year trekking to the turquoise waterfall, relies on that aquifer for its water as well, and they've also expressed concern about the mine.
Inside the Grand Canyon, the threat is perhaps the most real. Raft trips rely on water from intermittent creeks that intersect the Colorado River throughout their two- to four-week-long trips, and several water sources are unsafe for drinking, even after filtering. The water from Kanab Creek and from Horn Creek have both been contaminated by uranium mines.
The Canyon mine was approved in 1986, despite protests from the Havasupai tribe and other activists. It's never been mined, but pre-mining exploratory drilling drained aquifer water from below the proposed mine site, and a 2010 USGS report found that samples of groundwater beneath the mine had dissolved uranium concentrations in excess of EPA drinking water standards.
"Once an aquifer's contaminated, it's permanent, and no amount of money in the world can reverse it," Roger Clark of the Grand Canyon Trust says.
Energy Fuels, the company that owns the mine, plans to begin operations this June.