HOUSE ROCK VALLEY OVERLOOK — Most people pass through here without stopping. They have places to go, a string of national parks on the bucket list — Grand Canyon, Bryce, Zion — and there’s no time for overlooks, however scenic. Kim Crumbo took it all in. The red cliffs, the desert scrub, dry creeks, juniper trees that send roots deep underground in search of water.
It’s hard to imagine any water here at this Arizona overlook between the Grand Canyon and the Vermilion Cliffs, but it’s out there. It collects in potholes and slot canyons during winter and summer storms. It emerges from a crack, pours down a cliff, meanders along a forest floor, then vanishes into cobble and dust. Researchers say that Kaibab National Forest, just over the hill, has more than 200 seeps, springs and creeks, which are vital to the region’s wildlife. Most of the water here winds up in the Colorado River, which flows for 277 miles through Grand Canyon National Park.
It was mid-morning on a December day at the overlook, located along Arizona 89A as it begins to climb into the ponderosa forest. A bit of snow had fallen in the high country, and Crumbo talked about his conservation work, which lately has focused on the proliferation of uranium mines outside the park. He talked about how he first came to the canyon after two tours of duty in Vietnam as a Navy SEAL.
He was 23 years old and tired of war, sick of the jungle, tired of slipping into villages at night, neck deep in muck, the firefights at dawn. He moved to Utah. When he recalls this period in his life, he talks about rivers — the Mekong in March, the Colorado by May. He landed a job on a river rafting crew, and by the time his boss figured out that he had fibbed about his experience, Crumbo could handle the boat.
“Back then they were just scrounging for guides. It was: 'You know how to row a boat? You’re hired,' ” Crumbo said.
He joined a community of rafting guides that came up during the 1970s, then worked with the National Park Service as a river ranger and wilderness manager. After decades of working in the Canyon, Crumbo started looking for ways to save it, more specifically these days, how to save it from the uranium mines that he and other conservation advocates say threaten one of the world's natural wonders.
Although only a handful of mines can operate because of a 20-year ban on new mines imposed under President Barack Obama, prospectors have staked thousands of claims outside park borders. Although mining companies insist their operations are safer than they've ever been, conservationists fear that uranium mining will contaminate local creeks and springs that spill into the Colorado River, which supplies water for millions of people in the southwestern United States.
The uranium and its legacy can poison groundwater and soil and leave behind expensive cleanups, conservationists warn. It has happened before.
Backpacker and Grand Canyon through hiker Rich Rudow walks past the remains of the abandoned Copper Mountain Mine site in the Parashant National Monument in Mohave County. The site had once been used in the mining of copper and uranium and is now feared by some to be contaminating the nearby Grand Canyon and its water sources. (Thomas Hawthorne/The Republic)
The Cold War uranium boom heated up a couple of years after Crumbo was born. The government passed out guidebooks, set uranium prices, bought ore from prospectors and offered a $10,000 bonus for a producing mine. Thousands of prospectors scattered across the Colorado Plateau to find their fortune, marking claims with piles of rock, a slip of paper stashed in a tobacco can. They dug with picks and shovels for shallow deposits of the stuff, dug deeper and loaded horse-drawn carts or wheelbarrows.
Crews carved roads out of cliffs with bulldozers, dynamite and federal money, jeeps and trucks fanned out across the high desert; bigger players snapped up mines and sunk deeper shafts into the ground. Tons of uranium left the mills and a sense of patriotism fueled the boom because the Soviet Union, too, was digging, Tom Zoellner writes in “Uranium: War, Energy, and the Rock that Shaped the World.” (Zoellner is a former reporter for The Arizona Republic.)
Doctors saw the first cancer cases within five years, Zoellner writes, and warned that mining uranium might be different than digging up other minerals.
"By 1966, nearly one hundred miners were dead."
Radioactive waste can take minutes, days, billions of years to decay, and can be harmful in a variety of ways, depending on the type, how much, length of exposure and other factors.
In the case of miners, the lack of circulation in mines and mills was a problem because uranium releases some gases that can be “relatively harmless” in the outdoors but harmful in a confined space. It didn’t help that a lot of miners smoked. Doctors warned of the hazards, but the government kept their reports quiet, because the “only worry about radioactivity was that negative publicity might slow down production,” Zoellner writes.
Navajo workers testified in congressional hearings that they were chased back into mines minutes after a dynamite blast, while dust still hung in the air, no masks, no ventilation, because they were on the clock, earning $2.50 an hour, tops. Some mines had ventilators, but they were only turned on when mine inspectors came.
When the boom ended, most prospectors walked away. A Government Accountability Office report estimated in 2012 that just inspecting the Bureau of Land Management sites scattered across the Four Corners would cost $39 million. The Environmental Protection Agency reports that there are more than 500 abandoned mines on the Navajo Reservation.
Sorting out who pays for the cleanup of abandoned mines can take years of litigation. The EPA recently announced a $600 million settlement to clean up 94 mines on Navajo land, for example, ending a three-way legal battle between the federal government, mining companies and the Navajo Nation. The government will split the cost of the cleanup, which will be carried out by Freeport-McMoRan Inc. subsidiaries Cyprus Amex Minerals Co. and Western Nuclear Inc.
When courts cannot sort out which investors are legally responsible for a mess, the U.S. taxpayer picks up the tab. A cleanup at the Orphan Mine, located on the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park, has cost $15 million so far. Martha Hahn, retired chief of science and resource management at the park, said mine owners blame other owners for problems at the mine, creating a legal maze the courts are still navigating.
MORE: Abandoned uranium mines continue to haunt Navajos on reservation | Mine cleanup could take 100 years | Radiation rise stalls uranium mine permits near Grand Canyon
By the time Crumbo left Vietnam, the United States and Soviet Union had built enough nuclear weapons to destroy each other several times. The government stopped buying uranium in 1970 as use shifted from the military to nuclear power. Uranium markets are now like any other mining venture — volatile, speculative, subject to rapid swings. Free-market production peaked in the 1980s, then crashed.
In 1996, after years on the river and in the Canyon, Crumbo formed the Grand Canyon Wildlands Council with Kelly Burke and Larry Stevens. Both of them have geology backgrounds, while Crumbo had earned an environmental studies degree when he wasn't running rivers. The group studied endangered species, wildlife corridors, helicopter noise, timber harvests on the Kaibab Plateau and uranium mines. The council and other conservation groups had raised the idea of a monument on the Arizona Strip north of the Canyon to ban new mines, but nothing came of it, and the group focused on other work.
Stevens has a passion for springs, for example, and continues to research them. When the group got funding to study springs on the Arizona Strip, a broad section of high desert north of the Grand Canyon, it gave them a chance to explore the far reaches of the Grand Canyon ecosystem. The Virgin Mountains. Grand Wash Cliffs. Places rarely seen by tourists.
“We just drove all over it,” Burke said. It was the first systematic survey of springs on the Strip. They studied plants, birds and bugs, migrating animals and water sources that kept them going. Later, when they started doing projects on the river, they kept thinking about all those springs, how the watershed might be connected.
“It was like the whole landscape transformed,” Burke said.
Around 2005, uranium prices began to rise, and prospectors flocked to northern Arizona, which has high-grade ore primarily found in geological features known as breccia pipes. Only a fraction of breccia pipes have uranium, but conservationists grew concerned about the possibility of more uranium mines on the Strip.
A handful of mines have operated on the Strip for years. Under U.S. mining law, companies can place mines on standby when the price of ore falls, reopen them when the price rises. Conservationists call them zombie mines.
"It became real apparent that this was something that we needed to get a handle on," Crumbo said.
In 2008, U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., introduced legislation to withdraw about 1 million acres of public land adjacent to the Canyon from future claims.
A series of congressional hearings in years that followed revealed two schools of thought on uranium mining. One is that it has already caused health problems, stuck taxpayers with a cleanup that will cost millions of dollars and can cause permanent environmental damage. The other is that uranium can be mined safely, providing a source of clean energy and jobs that pay well. Mining it in the U.S. means less reliance on foreign production.
Unlike the big, sprawling copper mines that have helped shape Arizona since territorial days, a modern uranium mine is little more than a head frame, a few metal outbuildings, a pond and piles of rock, all within a chain-link fence. State and federal agencies now oversee mine construction and monitor air, water, dust and traffic. Mining companies must tear down structures, remove machinery and cover up shafts when they finish extracting ore, a process known as reclamation.
“These are tidy little mines. … I don’t see this as some huge problem or some Superfund issue that they won’t be able to take care of,” said Nyal Niemuth, an Arizona mining consultant.
Karen Wenrich, a geologist and mining consultant testifying before a congressional hearing on uranium mining in the Grand Canyon area, said the mines are small and “dry,” located beneath the ground, yet above the aquifer.
“The water table is way below the level of the mine,” Wenrich said in an interview.
Wenrich said not only can mining be safely done, but has been, several times, and can name a number of breccia pipe mines that have been drilled and reclaimed over the past few decades: Hack 1, 2 and 3, Hermit, Pinenut, Pigeon and Kanab North.
“These are tidy little mines. … I don’t see this as some huge problem or some Superfund issue that they won’t be able to take care of.”Nyal Niemuth, an Arizona mining consultant
“I think the only accident they had was some guy got his finger smashed with a hammer,” she said. It's possible to drive to Hack Canyon today and never know a mine once stood there.
Although high levels of radiation can be harmful, people are exposed to low levels on a regular basis, Niemuth said. Creeks and springs around the Canyon frequently show trace amounts of uranium, but rarely exceed the Environmental Protection Agency standard for safe drinking water, which is 30 parts or less of dissolved uranium per billion.
“It’s hard to explain to a scientifically naïve public that uranium is in the environment,” Niemuth said.
A paper co-written by Wenrich describes a so-called worst-case scenario: An entire truck full of uranium ore is swept away in a flash flood on Kanab Creek, a Colorado River tributary. The paper calculated that by the time the ore reached the Colorado, the river’s uranium level would rise from 4.00 to 4.02 parts per billion, well below the EPA standard.
“When you mention the word radioactivity, that just freaks people out,” Wenrich said.
There is no evidence that uranium mining in northern Arizona that has occurred since the 1970s has had an adverse impact on groundwater, said Curtis Moore, a spokesman for Energy Fuels Resources Inc., which owns the rights to a number of mines on the Strip. He answered questions in an email.
“When you mention the word radioactivity, that just freaks people out.”Karen Wenrich, a geologist and mining consultant testifying before a congressional hearing on uranium mining in the Grand Canyon area
By 2011, Congress was still debating what to do about mines on the Strip. Conservationists urged Obama’s Interior secretary, Ken Salazar, to declare a mining ban for northern Arizona. Salazar issued a temporary ban in June of that year.
In October, U.S. Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., introduced a bill to reverse it. Franks said during a congressional hearing on the bill that mining the Arizona Strip was necessary to reduce U.S. dependence on imports, because about 90 percent of the nation’s uranium comes from other countries, including Russia.
Rep. Grijalva countered that because foreign companies are allowed to stake claims under U.S. mining law, a Russian company already had 642 claims on the Arizona Strip. Wenrich, a key expert for the pro-mining camp, owned 61 mining claims in northern Arizona herself, Grijalva said. Records on file with the Securities and Exchange Commission show that Wenrich stood to make $225,000 from a mineral exploration firm if the government overturned its mining ban. Wenrich said she had published her research long before she made her claims.
While Congress debated the issue, Denison Mines Corp. stayed busy, opening shuttered mines, extracting ore. Energy Fuels Resources Inc. later purchased Denison’s holdings, including the Canyon Mine near Tusayan, the only mine operating today. Pinenut and Kanab North have been closed and are in the process of being reclaimed. Energy Fuels also owns EZ 1 and 2 on the Arizona Strip and is applying for permits to operate both. Arizona 1 is on care and maintenance and could be mined again in the future.
Government documents show that in the past decade, uranium mines have had their share of problems, in spite of improved safety and government regulation.
• In 2008, the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality denied a license for the Pinenut mine, noting that it did not have sufficient plans to manage storm runoff. The following year, according to documents on file at ADEQ, a consulting firm for Denison reported that about 8.76 acre-feet water (or more than 2.85 million gallons) had accumulated in the mine since it had been put on standby in 1989. ADEQ also found elevated radiation levels in soil samples at Pinenut in July 2015 and January 2016.
• In 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency found that Denison was operating the Arizona 1 mine, about 35 miles south of Fredonia, without proper permits. The agency later dropped its complaint. In 2014, ADEQ reported elevated soil samples at the mine, a finding that may have been due to a change in sampling methods.
• In August 2016, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission reported that trucks hauling radioactive sludge from Wyoming to White Mesa Mill in Utah had leaked. (Energy Fuels reported the leak itself, and the NRC has temporarily grounded the trucks while it studies the matter.)
Roger Clark of the group Grand Canyon Trust said that although state regulators watch over mines, they do not see their role as watchdogs for the public interest.
“They basically see their job as running an efficient permitting system, and not encumbering the interests of private business any more than they have to,” Clark said.
The same is true of the BLM, which oversees much of the land where the mines are located, he said. The BLM has a staff that is “small” and “very good,” Clark said, but “they use their discretion in favor of the mining companies.”
Crumbo said that unless companies can prove that uranium mining is safe, it should not be allowed. He cites Murphy’s Law — that anything that can go wrong, will — and says, “Murphy was an optimist, in my opinion.”
Rich Rudow checks out the remains of a building at the site of the Copper Mountain Mine. (Thomas Hawthorne/The Republic)
The mining industry has survived with help from the Mining Law of 1872, a long tradition and a series of booms. Arizona was built on one strike after another — gold, silver, copper — and mining still helps fuel the state’s economy.
The industry also has a powerful lobby. During the 2011 congressional hearings, for example, Arizona's U.S. Reps. Trent Franks and Paul Gosar and Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake of Arizona all spoke in favor of the mines, along with Rep. Rob Bishop and Sen. Orrin Hatch, both R- Utah. Together, they have received $53,750 from Minepac, a political action committee for the National Mining Association.
As talks continued and a national monument on the Strip became part of the conversation, the Prosper Foundation Inc. and Arizona Chamber Foundation headed a coalition that lobbied against it. Prosper was founded by Kirk Adams, chief of staff to Gov. Doug Ducey. Prosper reported revenue of more than $1.5 million in 2014.
(Grijalva has received about $25,000 from the Sierra Club and has received more than $29,000 from the League of Conservation Voters.)
As the debate continued, talk of a monument gained momentum, but it took time. Crumbo recalls approaching McCain’s office with the idea of a national monument to protect the areas near the Canyon — and the silence that followed. He approached the local Indian tribes, who were interested, but there was still work to do, hours of research, phone calls, travel, emails, meeting with people and “getting them excited about the idea.”
President Bill Clinton created Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument, located on the park's northern border, in 2000, but a number of areas in the region remained vulnerable.
“It’s a lot of work,” Crumbo said. Nobody can say exactly how or when the talk became serious — Sandy Bahr of the Sierra Club recalls conversations that took place years ago, but nothing came of them. But once Grijalva became involved, things changed.
In January 2012, Salazar called for a 20-year ban on new uranium claims on the Strip.
By this time, the U.S. Geological Survey had begun to study springs in the region and was trying to determine what impact, if any, uranium mining has on local springs. A recent study on Pigeon Spring, for example, showed that its high levels of uranium were probably natural and not caused by mining. More studies are underway.
"The system is very complex. And we’re trying to better understand it so we can understand what effects may occur,” said Kim Beisner of the USGS.
In 2015, Grijalva consulted with local tribes, who have long lived in uranium country, and introduced a bill calling for a national monument that would make the uranium mining ban permanent on 1.7 million acres of public lands.
By September 2016 polls showed about 80 percent of Americans supported the monument. Grijalva’s bill had stalled, but Obama’s second term was about to end, and there was hope he would use the Antiquities Act to designate the monument.
Under the 1906 act, presidents can create a national monument and sometimes do so when Congress won't. President Clinton created five in Arizona during his last year in office. The monuments are carved out of existing federal lands and can include restrictions on land use. In this case, conservation groups wanted a monument that would prohibit future uranium mining, making permanent the ban taken earlier under Obama.
MORE: Colorado in Grand Canyon rated No. 1 endangered river | With uranium poisoning wells, Navajos must drive to get drinking water | Settlement reached to clean up mines
The remains of a building lay in disarray at the site of the abandoned Copper Mountain Mine. (Thomas Hawthorne/The Republic)
The Grand Canyon watershed is big, complex and connected in ways that are not well understood. Most of the region is arid, but winter snow and summer rain feed seeps, wells, washes, and springs. David Kreamer of the University of Nevada-Las Vegas said the water can take days, weeks, or centuries to filter through layers of rock and travel from rim to river. How it does that is not always clear, because “it’s difficult to see rocks that are over 3,000 feet deep,” said Abe Springer, a professor of hydrology with Northern Arizona University.
The water travels through rock layers hard and soft, dripping straight down, moving sideways, into cracks and caves, tunnels and wells. Softer geological layers can absorb water like a sponge. Eventually, the water emerges. It bubbles up from a quiet spring, roars out of a cave and tumbles downhill, seeps out of shady glens, spills down Colorado River tributaries: Bright Angel, Deer, Kanab, Tapeats.
To learn more, Grand Canyon National Park hydrologist Ben Tobin placed fluorescent dye into sinkholes on the Kaibab Plateau. Researchers then checked creeks and springs in the Grand Canyon to see where the dye came out. One seep, located near the park’s North Rim entrance, surprised researchers.
“Based on previous research it was assumed that that water was flowing straight down to Bright Angel Creek. But it never showed up there,” Tobin said. The water dropped 6,000 feet of elevation and about 24 horizontal miles, with traces of it turning up at Vasey’s Paradise, Deer Creek, Thunder River and Tapeats Creek.
There are two main aquifers in the Canyon, the Redwall Muav and the Coconino above it, and “there’s connection between the two,” Tobin said, “but we don’t really have a good understanding of what those connections are.”
Rich Rudow holds up a mine claim from 1953 found in the Parashant National Monument wilderness. (Thomas Hawthorne/The Republic)
Rich Rudow has walked thousands of miles in the abyss and once walked the length of Grand Canyon, a two-month journey along ledges and routes, in and out of slot canyons and drainages that empty into the Colorado River.
One December morning, as he walked in Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument, located on the Canyon’s north side, Rudow began running into mining claims, piles of rock scattered across the Esplanade. He removed a rusted can from the base of one, flipped open the lid, took out a slip of paper that laid claim to gold, silver, copper, lead or other valuable minerals beneath his feet. It was dated 1953.
The air was clear, the morning bright, the claim tattered and pocked with age.
“We’re probably the first ones who have opened it since 1953,” he said.
Rudow put the paper back and kept walking, past piles of red rock marking other claims, avoiding clumps of cactus, the stabbing leaves of Spanish bayonet, until he reached a road that led to what was left of Copper Mountain Mine.
“There’s this mine that’s been laying fallow since probably the '50s, and nobody’s asking any questions because nobody’s complaining. ... If the government goes in there and asks too many questions they have to do the cleanup themselves.”Rich Rudow, backpacker and through hiker
The mine was first tapped in 1875, and for a time the miners packed their ore out on burros, George Billingsley writes in a history of Grand Canyon mines. Some records indicate the mine produced 75 pounds of uranium oxide, others that a couple of outfitters explored the property but never mined there, Billingsley writes.
An old shack where the muckers and blasters once lived had collapsed and the flotsam of camp littered a hillside. A battered stove, an upside-down car, rusted and gutted, tires, a 50-gallon drum. Rusty cans, plastic pipe, wire, cable and gears, an aluminum camper shell, a metal box full of bullet holes, rubber hose.
Farther down the road, shafts bore into the rock, vertical and horizontal tunnels where the government has inserted metal bars to keep foolish people out. Wheels and boards, rubber pipe, rails and rat droppings, old beams, tailings piles on sharp slopes. On the ground, beneath a weathered two-by-four near one shaft, is a sign: DANGER: HIGH RADIATION AREA.
The signs appeared after the area became a national monument, Rudow said. A 2010 monument manager’s report said workers installed the gates, sealed shafts with polyurethane foam and rock jarred loose with explosives. The government has also remediated other, smaller mines in the monument to benefit wildlife and improve safety, the report said.
Rudow walked down the road to a trail that led to a drainage of smooth boulders and followed it to a slot canyon of polished limestone with dozens of water holes.
“These are really great potholes. I just wish I wasn’t afraid to drink from them,” he said.
Rudow is not a wild-eyed environmentalist. He’s a retired engineer, and understands that the nation needs uranium for defense, to generate electricity and other uses, but he thinks that the nation needs to pay more attention to where it comes from, and to protect places like the Grand Canyon.
“It’s just willy-nilly. People mine wherever the hell they want.” The same forces that created the Canyon, wind and erosion, keep working on the tailings piles, Rudow said.
“Is that dangerous? I don’t know.” And that is the point, Rudow said: Nobody knows, and nobody wants to know.
“There’s this mine that’s been laying fallow since probably the '50s, and nobody’s asking any questions because nobody’s complaining,” Rudow said. Too many complaints could lead to yet another cleanup by an underfunded government agency.
“If the government goes in there and asks too many questions they have to do the cleanup themselves,” Rudow said.
In 1995, a research team led by Kreamer, the UNLV hydrogeologist, measured uranium levels of 92.7 parts per billion at Horn Creek, located beneath the Orphan Mine. In 2010 the Geological Survey found that 15 springs and five wells had uranium concentrations higher than the EPA standard.
Because researchers have so much to learn about underground water flows, uranium mining amounts to conducting an experiment, Kreamer said, and it may be a long time before there are results. Mines in the developing world do a better job of monitoring water quality than they do in the United States, he said.
Kreamer said that calling uranium mines “dry” overlooks the fact that they use a lot of water, enough to dry up some canyon springs. Uranium mines are sometimes connected to washes where water travels, which can make it difficult to contain runoff. Kreamer said reclamation amounts to moving a few boulders on the surface and picking up the trash, and cannot repair damage to the aquifer.
Crumbo recalls a mission in Vietnam. The plan was to capture a politician meeting with some Viet Cong guerrillas, and it did not go well. The fog of war has blurred the details, but the helicopter crashed on an enemy hut and Crumbo jumped out, slid down the roof, and somehow wasn’t injured. The mission, carried out by some of the military’s finest, with state-of-the-art equipment, quickly spiraled into a gunfight. A soldier died and others were injured.
Maybe that’s why, all these years later, Crumbo says that Murphy was an optimist. Why he doesn’t think that the uranium mining, for all its improvements, can be done safely.
Decades after leaving Vietnam, he’s still fighting.
“I think there is a battle ahead that we need to be prepared for,” Crumbo said.
This battle is quieter — no crashing helicopters and the Mekong is far away — just email strings and phone calls, meetings and talk of new legislation, of springs connected in ways that scientists are only beginning to understand. There is a massive cleanup funded by taxpayers, radioactive sludge, "dark money," there are campaign contributions and zombie mines.
The nation needs uranium, people need jobs, and most everyone agrees that today’s mines are safer. But conservationists wonder if they will ever be safe enough, because water flows downhill and bills for the cleanup keep coming.
Will uranium mining damage the Grand Canyon watershed? The short answer is that nobody knows. But critics say a growing body of evidence suggests it can. Obama left office without creating a monument in northern Arizona, and conservationists fear that Salazar’s 20-year ban may not survive a Donald Trump presidency.
“It sucks,” Crumbo said, the day he heard that Obama would not create a new monument on the Strip, but he was still upbeat. On balance, he said, “Obama’s done a tremendous job. … My position has always been that he’s our president, not our fairy godfather. He has work to do. We have work to do. … The game ain’t over.”