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URANIUM

THE PROBLEM

Radiological and heavy-metal contamination go hand-in-hand with uranium development. Since the practice began in the United States, when Colorado gold miners first struck uranium back in 1871, uranium mining has developed an unfortunate legacy of imperiling endangered species, causing egregious human-health impacts, and contaminating — often permanently — public lands and precious water.

Pollutants from the mining of uranium can contaminate aquatic ecosystems for hundreds of years, threatening downstream communities and fish and wildlife. Even small amounts of some pollutants can poison fish, accumulate in the food chain, and cause deformities and reproductive problems for aquatic species.

Despite uranium development’s harmful effects, mining corporations continue the push to develop new uranium resources on public lands throughout the West. Buoyed by the booming global market and greased by the antiquated 1872 mining law, these companies take advantage of largely unfettered and royalty-free access to public lands in their pursuit of what some Navajo (Diné) people have coined “the yellow monster.”

All phases of uranium development — exploration, mining and milling — can pose unique threats to species, ecosystems, and human communities. From habitat destruction and disruption of wildlife to bio-accumulation and irreversible pollution of waters, today’s boom threatens to build upon uranium’s legacy of environmental and social harm.

OUR CAMPAIGN

Using a strategic combination of litigation, creative media, and policy advocacy, the Center is working to protect western species, waterways, communities, and public lands from the threat of new uranium mining. Leveraging strong opposition to the most urgent uranium threats, we bring national media and public attention to the uranium problem to prevent new contamination of the once-wild West and make sure remaining pristine areas stay that way.

GRAND CANYON URANIUM DEVELOPMENT
Public lands surrounding Grand Canyon National Park contain some of the highest concentrations of uranium deposits in North America. Spikes in uranium prices in recent years have caused an explosion of new mining claims and exploration on those lands. Threats posed by exploration and the potential mining it portends — damage to wildlife and habitat, contamination of waters, and the industrialization of iconic landscapes — has prompted objections from conservation groups, native tribes, government officials, and the public. It has spawned litigation spearheaded by the Center, as well as congressional action including legislation and a resolution on emergency mineral withdrawal.

Learn more about our campaign to stop Grand Canyon uranium mining.

DOLORES AND SAN MIGUEL RIVERS: DEPARTMENT OF ENERGY URANIUM LEASING PROGRAM
I
n July 2008, the Center and allies, including the Energy Minerals Law Center, challenged a decision by the Department of Energy to approve a plan that would expand a national uranium-leasing program threefold and permit uranium mining on 42 square miles in Colorado and Utah. Our challenge focused on the Department’s failure to adequately analyze the expansion’s environmental impacts — in particular, the significant harm to soil and water. Our lawsuit met with ultimate success in 2012, when a federal judge upheld his 2011 halt of the Department of Energy’s 42-square-mile uranium-leasing program that threatened the Dolores and San Miguel rivers in southwestern Colorado. The 53-page ruling invalidated the Department’s approval of the program; suspended each of the program’s 31 existing leases; enjoined the Department from issuing any new leases; and enjoined any further exploration, drilling or mining activity at all 43 mines approved under the program pending satisfactory completion of new environmental reviews. 

The Department had failed to analyze impacts on endangered fish despite warnings of potential harm from sister agencies. Since approving the leasing program in 2007, and despite having sidestepped Endangered Species Act requirements, the Department of Energy had approved dozens of 10-year lease agreements that effectively authorized new and re-mining. Uranium tailings on Department leases and other tracts have already contaminated the Dolores and San Miguel river watersheds, seriously degrading water quality in both rivers. Proposed uranium mines and mills in the area (including the Whirlwind mine and the Paradox uranium mill) may also result in runoff and discharge of contaminants into the Dolores River basin.

The Department had failed to analyze impacts on endangered fish despite warnings of potential harm from sister agencies. Since approving the leasing program in 2007, and despite having sidestepped Endangered Species Act requirements, the Department of Energy had approved dozens of 10-year lease agreements that effectively authorized new and re-mining. Uranium tailings on Department leases and other tracts have already contaminated the Dolores and San Miguel river watersheds, seriously degrading water quality in both rivers. Proposed uranium mines and mills in the area (including the Whirlwind mine and the Paradox uranium mill) may also result in runoff and discharge of contaminants into the Dolores River basin.

Uranium mine photo © Aaron Booth