The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality issued an aquifer protection plan permit to Pinyon Plain Mine on Thursday, putting the mine’s operators a step closer to starting uranium extraction.
The mine, about 10 miles south of the Grand Canyon’s South Rim in the Kaibab National Forest, is owned by Energy Fuels Resources, a company incorporated in Canada with corporate offices in Colorado.
It has been opposed by environmentalists and tribes, particularly the Havasupai Tribe, some of whose members live in a side canyon of the Grand Canyon and have long feared that mining would contaminate their sole source of water.
Pinyon Plain Mine has been in planning since 1984, but has not yet produced any uranium ore. The owners halted operations there after the price of uranium plunged to $6.40 a pound in 1992. Currently, uranium is priced at about $57 a pound.
The mine is located within a 1-million-acre area off-limits to mineral extraction, but was permitted before the Obama administration imposed the ban and thus is still considered active.
An aquifer protection plan permit is required for any facility that discharges any pollutants into groundwater. To obtain the permit, the facility must meet state water quality standards for discharges and show the state that it is using the latest technology to ensure that any discharges will not filter into groundwater.
The new permit consolidates three existing permits and also includes existing groundwater protections that the U.S. Forest Service approved during the permitting process. ADEQ said the new permit would more efficiently enable agency oversight of the mine.
In an email announcing that the permit had been approved, ADEQ wrote that the decision was a “direct result of Tribal Consultation, public comments received and ADEQ’s comprehensive review of the extensive technical record for the Mine.”
In a July 2021 statement, ADEQ said the new permits would make Pinyon Plain Mine the most heavily regulated conventional mine in the U.S.
The agency also said it had made some substantial changes to the permit, among them: Energy Fuels would have to restrict mining operations to a narrow band between 4,508 feet above sea level and 5,340 feet; and agree to increase its post-closure procedure funding estimate to more than $1.5 million.
Uranium ore is found in long, narrow rock formations known as breccia pipes, vertical bodies of highly fractured rock that resemble chimney-like voids created when the underlying rock gave way.
Recent moves by the Biden administration point to possible increased interest in domestic uranium production. In April, the U.S. Department of Energy announced a $6 billion fund to support continued operations of nuclear power reactors. Also, although the administration removed uranium from its list of critical minerals, the U.S. continues to purchase uranium from Russia.
Tribes and environmentalists, who continue to argue that the mine would imperil lands, groundwaters and species in the area, have lost several court battles to force Pinyon Plain Mine to close.
In a statement, the Grand Canyon Trust, one of the mine’s principal opponents, said, “The Pinyon Plain Mine sits within a Havasupai Traditional Cultural Property and atop a very complex groundwater system connected to the Grand Canyon, one where any contamination would be impossible to clean up.”
The trust added that it considers the mine an example of why uranium mining has no place in the Grand Canyon region.
“The decision to grant the permit despite all of this, shows how important it is to prevent more mines from ever getting a foot in the door,” the group said.
The mine’s owners said the state agency acted properly in granting the permit.
“We thank ADEQ for their hard work, thoroughness, and frankly their courage, in following the science and facts, despite considerable opposition from political pressure groups,” said Curtis Moore, vice president of marketing with Energy Fuels.
ADEQ will accept appeals for 30 days following the announcement.