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July, 2011

In light of all the hoopla over the past few years about uranium mining around the Grand Canyon, I was reflecting on my own personal experiences in the mining industry over the past 30 plus years and thinking to myself, “What’s this all this about? Why the ‘emergency’? Been there, done that in the past and, by the way, did it very well.”

Early in my career, I was fortunate enough to land a job with Energy Fuels and was able to work with innumerable highly dedicated people. Back then, Energy Fuels was just beginning to explore the Arizona Strip for uranium resources. During the 1980s, they went on to discover and analyze hundreds of promising claims, open and operate seven producing mines, as well as a processing mill in Blanding, Utah.

During the 1980s – when Energy Fuels was active in northern Arizona – they extracted and processed over 1.5 million tons of ore that provided over 19 million pounds of processed uranium that provided enough electricity to fuel a city the size of Phoenix for roughly 60 years. In the process of all this activity, they fully reclaimed all drill sites as well as the mines themselves not merely in accordance with the letter of the law but all the way to its very spirit.

Back then, I remember that Energy Fuels made an offer to the Park Service to completely and fully reclaim the old Orphan Mine that sits on the rim of the Grand Canyon and predates even the creation of the National Park itself. The company had both the people and, more importantly, the know-how to make it happen – and all at no cost to the government. Energy Fuels had never had anything to do with the Orphan Mine but made the offer in the spirit of cooperation and to be a good neighbor. I remember at the time being shocked that the Park Service rejected the offer.

In the early 1980s, I was involved in Energy Fuels’ effort to meet with representatives of all stakeholders in northern Arizona, including other mining companies, local and state cattlemen’s associations, timber interests, local businesses, civic groups, and local state and federal governmental and regulatory agencies as well as the Sierra Club, Audubon Society, Arizona Wildlife Federation, Wilderness Society, and the National Parks and Conservation Association to see if there was a chance at arriving at a consensus about land use in northern Arizona. Our efforts at compromise resulted in the landmark Arizona Strip Wilderness Act that was introduced in both Houses of Congress.

When it was signed into law, the Arizona Strip Wilderness Act of 1984 added approximately 285,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and 102,000 U.S. Forest Service lands to the National Wilderness Preservation System, essentially protecting these lands forever. At the same time, it released 490,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and 50,000 acres of U.S. Forest Service lands to multiple use, including mineral exploration and mining.

At the time, it was thought that all questions of wilderness and conservation on the Arizona Strip were finally decided “once and for all,” thereby ending years of controversy, debate and conflict together as well as the uncertainty and constant reevaluation. It was also thought that the groundbreaking Arizona Strip Wilderness Act encapsulated a consensus of opinion from the widest possible range of constituents – including opposing ends of the political spectrum – and that Congress had finally clearly and definitively defined the disposition of all public lands on the Arizona Strip.

But in today’s climate of political jingoism, scientific fact and history have been replaced by innuendo and rumor, reality by unfounded panic, common sense by hysterics with all of it leading to ‘emergency’ segregations and talk of withdrawal. What’s changed? And the answer to that is nothing.

The critics of mining claim that, in the past few years, the ‘frenzy’ of mining claims has escalated to the point of being worrisome. Yet the 3,300 current claims on file pale in comparison to the average 20,000 that were existent during most years during the 1980s. Do fewer claims than 20 years ago constitute an emergency today?

Lacking any scientific study or data to back them up, the critics of mining also claim that the Colorado River watershed is in danger of elevated radioactive contamination. Yet analysis after analysis, study after study, and report after report fail to verify this claim. Why? Simply because it is not true. If there is a culprit that is contaminating the Colorado River watershed it is Mother Nature herself. There are over 100 known exposed uranium-bearing formations inside the Grand Canyon National Park itself, each constantly leaching its radioactive minerals into the watershed. How many unknown natural formations doing the same is anybody’s guess. But even then, radioactive levels in the watershed are within EPA acceptable standards. Does the radioactive contamination produced by nature itself over eons constitute an emergency today?

The critics of mining point to the government-inspired, Cold War legacy of uranium mining in the west and say “see what happened then?” Yet do historical examples, which took place elsewhere in a different time, with a different mind-set, under different priorities and under vastly different laws, as well as with a different ethic constitute an emergency today?

What these critics of mining fail to mention is that for the past 30 plus years, a combination of new mining laws, enlightened attitudes and approaches, new technologies and methods of mine reclamation, close cooperation between mining companies and government regulators and the idea that good stewardship of the land is in everyone's best interest has created a new mining ethic that firmly rejects the mining methods of the past.

In the 21st century, extracting the uranium we vitally need – even in proximity to the Grand Canyon – to provide the non carbon producing nuclear generated electricity that cannot be easily or quickly replaced, while at the same time protecting the environment, is an achievable and realistic historical fact. It has been done in the past and can be done even better in the future.

Pam Hill
Executive Director

ACERT – American Clean Energy Resources Trust

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