FLAGSTAFF - Conservation groups and officials in a northern Arizona county say there are serious flaws in a new federal analysis of the risks and benefits of uranium mining near the Grand Canyon.
The Coconino County Board of Supervisors questioned the report's conclusion that mining will employ hundreds of people and support thousands indirectly. The Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity, Grand Canyon Wildlands Council and the Grand Canyon Trust agree.
The conservationists also worry that water quality could be affected.
These groups all support putting federal land bordering the Grand Canyon off-limits to new uranium mines for 20 years. That would still allow perhaps 11 existing mines but end new exploration that could permit more than 700 sites to be explored.
Their opinions were contained in responses to an environmental study obtained by the Arizona Daily Sun in Flagstaff.
These questions have growing significance because a 2-year-old moratorium on new uranium mining issued by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar expires in mid-July, opening the door for mining exploration to resume across about 1 million acres.
An Interior spokeswoman said she did not know when Salazar might make a decision on the issue.
Representatives in Washington County, Utah, are already on record saying they want the federal government to allow more uranium mining. They say it would not cause environmental damage and could bring billions of dollars to the area's economy.
Representatives from the mining industry also say it would have little environmental impact.
The conservation groups disagree.
"The problem with this area is that there are more unknowns than knowns -- especially north of the canyon, there is a huge area where the science has not been done to determine how groundwater is moving," said Alicyn Gitlin, of the Sierra Club.
She cited the drinking water for the Grand Canyon, which is supplied by a spring on the northern side of the canyon.
When snow melts on the North Rim most years, the water quality in the springs gets cloudy, raising an evident connection between events on the surface and water quality.
Projections on how much the ore could be worth into the future appear volatile, and determining who benefits from the industry is problematic, economic development consultant Richard Merritt wrote to the Interior Department on behalf of the Grand Canyon Trust.
"... inaccuracies in modeling the economic impact of the withdrawal ... cause us to seriously question the veracity of the final conclusions ..." Merritt wrote.
Federal agencies also didn't adequately weigh the risks of lasting aquifer contamination related to uranium mining, the four conservation groups wrote.
"(The analysis) avoids discussion of the monumental tasks and hundreds of millions or billions of dollars required to clean up deep aquifer contamination, assuming it is even possible. Commenting organizations raised this issue in scoping. Neither the federal government nor industry can guarantee that uranium mining would not deplete or contaminate aquifers," they stated.
In an April letter, the Coconino County Board of Supervisors asked that a lot of federal land in Coconino County be put off-limits to uranium mining. They raised concerns about the impacts to tourism and questions about cleanup in case of an ore truck overturning.
The county cited "hot spots" of radioactivity at former mines.
The board contended that uranium jobs were possibly counted multiple times, but that tourism revenues might be undercounted, and raised complaints that monitoring for radioactive materials along haul routes into Fredonia, Flagstaff, Page and Cameron wouldn't be adequate.
"There is entirely too much risk, too many unknowns and too many identified impacts to justify threatening one of the most important U.S. landmarks and one of the most world-renowned national parks to justify the relatively small economic benefit associated with mining of uranium in the Grand Canyon region," the supervisors stated.