- Associated Press - Sunday, March 6, 2016

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) - Government scientists have gathered data to answer the question of whether a new uranium mining operation will contaminate the Grand Canyon region.

Scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey spent two years collecting and analyzing dozens of soil samples from around the Canyon Mine south of Grand Canyon National Park. The study gives them a baseline of the environment they can use to compare with future soil samples.

The mine on U.S. Forest Service land about six miles from Tusayan was approved in the 1980s but ore never was pulled out of the ground.

The company that owns it, Energy Fuels Resources Inc., now is further sinking the shaft of the mine in anticipation of opening it soon. The company recently wrapped up uranium mining at another site near the Arizona-Utah border and is working with federal officials to determine the validity of a claim for another mine in the area, according to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

No other uranium mines are operating in northern Arizona.

The U.S. Department of the Interior had cited concerns over possible contamination when it decided in 2012 to place a 20-year ban on the filing of new mining claims in a 1 million-acre area outside the boundaries of Grand Canyon National Park. Even with the withdrawal, about a dozen mines with established claims could open.

USGS program coordinator Mike Focazio said the agency didn’t find anything surprising in its study regarding the Canyon Mine. The background levels of uranium were within expectations for a site where uranium will be mined, and none of the ore has spread to the surface, he said.

Focazio said future studies would determine ways ore could spread from windblown dust, transport to a milling site in Utah or through a holding pond at the Canyon Mine. He said the USGS eventually would look at wells and springs in the area to see if uranium is getting in waterways as a result of mining. The timing would depend on funding available to the agency, he said.

Biologists also are looking at animals in the area and testing their tissue for signs of uranium, USGS scientist David Naftz said. “When combined with the soil and sediment samples, we’ll have a really clear snapshot of what conditions are like here before any uranium ore is extracted,” he said.

The USGS study was published last week in the journal Geoderma Regional.

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