Thursday, July 14, 2011

Mining Association Creatively Spins Uranium Mining Impacts Near the Grand Canyon

By Duane Craig

Mining impact near the Grand Canyon?
Determining the long term impact of any industry on the environment has to fall somewhere between a crap shoot and a reading from a clairvoyantly challenged fortune teller. Unfortunately, these prognostications affect many communities both positively and negatively. The communities in Northern Arizona and Southern Utah are in the crosshairs of the mining industry's love affair with the profits from uranium. But there are people who live there, and people responsible to the public for the management of the Grand Canyon and other federal lands, that want to make sure mining has minimal impact on the environment and people of the region.

Communities that could be affected include Flagstaff, Williams, Valle, Cameron, Tusayan, Seligman, Peach Springs, Hackberry, Meadview, Ash Fork and Kingman in Arizona. There could also be affected communities in Utah including Pearce Ferry, Jacob Lake, Marble Canyon, Fredonia, Kanab, St. George and Page. The Grand Canyon could also be affected.

The Bureau of Land Management got the task of figuring out how increased uranium mining will affect many aspects of the area including air quality, cultural resources, American Indian resources, economics, fish and wildlife, geology and minerals, recreation, social conditions, soils, soundscapes, special status species, vegetation, visual resources, water and wilderness. Its "Northern Arizona Proposed Withdrawal Draft Environmental Impact Statement" looks at four different approaches to managing uranium mining and assesses the impact of each approach on the resources in the area. Each approach is called an "alternative." Alternative A keeps all land in the area open for mining. Alternative B, withdraws a million acres from mining for 20 years. Alternative C removes 700,000 acres for 20 years, and Alternative D removes 300,000 acres for 20 years.

My main beef with some of these environmental impact statements is that they use obscure terms and don't bother to explain what they mean. In the BLM's Executive Summary to this EIS, the potential air quality impacts are summarized: "Modeling results demonstrate that plume impacts from a typical mining operation are below absolute contrast value but exceed the contrast limit (i.e., ΔE)." Perhaps modeling engineers immediately know what "absolute contrast values" and "contrast limit" mean, but that's probably not the case for everyday people who would like to have a deeper understanding of the issue.

But that gripe aside, I went through the EIS to compare what it says to what the National Mining Association claims it says. At the very top, air quality is expected to be affected enough to warrant "any future exploration and development activities to demonstrate that the proposed activity would not impact Class I areas such as Grand Canyon National Park…" The NMA doesn't mention that aspect in its release dated June 20.

It does mention effects on water sources saying: "mining activity would have no or negligible impact on water sources." Well, actually, the EIS says leaving the entire area open for mining (Alt A) has the greatest overall impact of all alternatives being considered. Alternative B, removing a million acres for 20 years, has the lowest impact. The EIS also makes it clear there are places where water quality will have major effects, such as in the South Parcel if Alternative A was chosen. There would also be major effects on the South Rim springs under Alternatives A,C, and D. The North Parcel surface waters under Alternatives B and C would be moderately affected, and under Alternative D surface water in the North and South Parcels would be moderately affected.

While the NMA release cites recreation and tourism, wilderness areas and fish and wildlife as being unaffected, it apparently missed the EIS assessments that:
·      Alt A would have a minor to major long term impact on aquatic and terrestrial habitats;
·      Alternative D would have a moderate impact to aquatic and terrestrial habitats;
·      Sensitive aquatic habitats such as the one at Kanab Creek would be least affected by Alternatives B, C, and D;
·      Wilderness will be affected in minor to major ways for short-term and long-term timeframes just depending on the actions of the mining companies. 

Of course there were many other areas of concern that would have all different levels of effects from mining in that area that the NMA simply chose to ignore. Additional noise will be added to local areas and views will be hampered or destroyed by equipment, power poles and wires and the necessary accessories demanded by mining. Vegetation will be affected, special status species and others will be affected by the changes in habitat and increased uranium in water and soils. Cultural resources would not be directly affected unless they couldn't be avoided and then, all alternatives would have a major impact on them, and this includes American Indian resources such as Havasupai Springs.

Proponents of allowing widespread mining in the area (Alternative A) are quick to point to the economic benefits and the EIS does report moderate to major long-term economic impact for Alternatives A and D. Alternative D only withdraws 300,000 acres from mining activity for the next 20 years, while Alternative A allows full-scale mining under existing rules and laws. The action favored by the BLM is Alternative B-withdrawing 1 million acres- and "would result in beneficial minor long-term impacts to economic activity from mineral development." The beneficial impacts would be $225 million in direct employment. Not bad when you consider this Alternative results in the best balancing of impacts to the people, plants, animals and ecosystem of the area.

While alternative A would have employment benefits of $613.7 million and Alternative D would benefit it to the tune of $531.9 million, both of those have the gravest impact on the aspects considered by the EIS. History has shown that when it comes to contamination erring on the side of caution might have removed the huge expenses associated with cleaning up messes. The additional $250 million in wages that won't materialize if Alternative B is chosen would be a drop in the bucket compared to the costs of cleaning up the potential mess left behind if Alternative A is chosen. As the old saying goes, you can pay now, or pay later. It will be interesting to see if the Interior Department sticks to its Alternative B preference.

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