Tuesday, July 21, 2009 | 4:13 p.m.
Restarting uranium mining near the Grand Canyon poses a contamination risk to the Colorado River, serving more than 25 million people in western states, a UNLV hydrology professor told a congressional committee today.
David Kreamer, a UNLV professor, said that assuming renewed uranium mining would have little or no effect on the river and surrounding springs is "unreasonable" and cannot be supported by past investigations and research.
Kreamer and his students have been conducting studies on springs in the Grand Canyon for 25 years and he told the House Natural Resources Committee's parks subcommittee that past mining activities have polluted a spring that feeds the Colorado River and that pollution is expected to continue if more mining occurs.
The committee is hearing a bill by Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., that would permanently bar new claims filed on 1.1 million acres of federal lands north and south of the canyon. Renewed interest in building nuclear power plants as alternative energy sources has spurred a surge in uranium mining claims in the area, Grijalva said.
As many as 10,000 mining claims exist on neighboring federal lands for all hard-rock exploration and some 1,100 uranium mining claims exist within five miles of the canyon.
Neither the proposed bill nor Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's announcement Monday that he is barring new claims on public lands for two years while a study is conducted would stop mining on existing claims.
Kreamer said his research found uranium levels three times above the Environmental Protection Agency's recommended limit on water supplies in Horn Creek, a canyon creek that runs into the Colorado. He said that the uranium polluted the creek's water from mining that stopped more than 10 years ago.
The potential for uranium reaching the Colorado River poses a risk for water consumers in California, Nevada and Arizona, said Kay Brothers, deputy general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority. Las Vegas draws 90 percent of its water from the Colorado River, she said.
Two scientists said modern mining has improved environmental protection and new mining development shouldn't stop because of old practices.
Most of the uranium claims have been staked in the Arizona Strip, an area just north of the Grand Canyon National Park notable for its superior uranium ore.
Uranium mining stopped 20 years ago as the price of uranium for nuclear energy, weapons and medicine went into freefall. The nuclear industry believes mining should be restarted as the price of uranium has climbed to about $55 a pound.