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Update: At Grand Canyon National Park, an Abandoned Uranium Mine Must be Cleaned Up
The Orphan Mine, which produced uranium during 1956-1969 for America's Cold War nuclear weapons program, is situated on and below the South Rim at Grand Canyon National Park. Abandoned in 1969, the site is contaminated with hazardous materials, some of which are radioactive. Now the site must be cleaned up, and it’s a time-consuming, complicated process.
Recently, an NPS News Daily Headlines announcement originating at Grand Canyon National Park got me thinking about the past, present, and future impacts of uranium mines in and near our national parks. Here is the announcement in its entirety.
September 16, 2008
GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK
National Park Service to hold informational meetings on removal of man-made features at Orphan Mine Site within Grand Canyon National Park
Grand Canyon, Ariz. – The National Park Service (NPS) will hold three informational meetings, one in Flagstaff, AZ and two in Grand Canyon National Park, AZ to discuss the removal of man-made features at the Orphan Mine Site, located on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.
The first meeting will be held at the Coconino Forest Supervisors Office - Conference Room, located at 1824 S. Thompson St., Flagstaff on Monday, September 29, from 5:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. The second and third meetings will be held at the Shrine of the Ages Auditorium, on the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park on Tuesday, September 30, from 10:00 a.m. to 12:00 noon and from 5:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m.
The Orphan Mine Site (Site) was contaminated by historic uranium mining activity. The NPS will conduct an evaluation of cleanup alternatives, known as an “Engineering Evaluation/Cost Analysis” (EE/CA) for Operable Unit 1 (OU1) of the Orphan Mine Site (Site), which encompasses about 31 acres located on and immediately below the south rim of the canyon, to analyze the effectiveness, feasibility, and cost of various cleanup alternatives. Phase I of the OU1 EE/CA is the Man-Made Features Removal (MFR), which involves removing the abandoned mining equipment, debris, and certain other “man-made features” in order to collect additional soil samples. On-site work is expected to begin on or around November 1, 2008, and should be completed by February 1, 2009. The proposed activities will be discussed at the informational meetings.
Phase II of the OU1 EE/CA, consisting of the field investigation and data collection/analysis, will be undertaken in 2009. Once completed, the OU1 EE/CA Report, including the analysis of cleanup alternatives and a recommendation regarding the preferred alternative, will be made available to the public for review and comment. In addition, a public meeting projected to take place in 2010 will be held to discuss the OU1 EE/CA Report. An EE/CA for OU2, which includes the middle and lower mine areas, will be completed at a later date.
The NPS is the lead agency under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) for site response action investigations, selection, and implementation. The NPS has determined that a CERCLA “non-time-critical removal action” is appropriate to address Site contaminants. When such a removal action is contemplated, applicable regulations require that an EE/CA be completed prior to the selection of the action. The Man-Made Features Removal is part of the EE/CA work plan for OU1, and is a necessary first phase to complete the investigation of contamination at the site.
Representatives from the NPS will be available at the informational meetings to provide background information, as well as information on the project scope and to answer any questions that the public and community of Grand Canyon may have.
For additional information on this project or the public meetings please contact Maureen Oltrogge, Public Affairs Officer, at (928) 638-7779 or Shawn P. Mulligan, National Park Service, at (303) 415-9014.
Here is some relevant background info that mindat.org has supplied about the mine involved here.
A former underground [uranium-copper] mine with minor & trace commodities of Sb-Pb-Co-Au-Mn-Zn-Ag-Mo & baryte, located in the N½ sec. 14, T.31N., R.2E. (Bright Angel 15 minute topo map), 2 miles west of Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim of the canyon itself, immediately West of Maricopa Point. Discovered by Daniel L. Hogan in 1893 as a copper claim and dubbed the 'Orphan lode' by him. Converted to a uranium mine in 1956 and closed in 1969. Owned by Western Gold & Uranium, Inc.
..... Workings include 3 small, original workings, including a main adit. The middle working has a main adit about 25 feet long and about 15 feet of workings branching off. The lower working adit is about 45 feet long, turns and goes an additional 25 feet. There is a 1,600 foot deep shaft and crosscut more than 800 feet long.
Production for the period 1956-1969 was 4,260,000 pounds of U308 [triuranium octoxide, a uranium compound), plus 6,680,000 pounds of Cu [copper], 107,000 oz. of Ag [silver] and 3,400 pounds of [vanadium pentoxide].
Note that the man who discovered the mineral deposits back in 1893 gave this site the name Orphan Lode, which evolved into Orphan Mine. Ironically, “orphan mine” is now the term used to denote a mine that has been abandoned. Ergo, the Orphan Mine is an orphan mine.
Location matters. The abandoned Orphan Mine is situated in Grand Canyon National Park on and below the South Rim between Maricopa Point and Powell Memorial about two miles west of Grand Canyon Village. This is adjacent to the West Rim Drive.
Hikers on the South Rim Trail must detour around the upper part of the mine site, which has been fenced to prevent visitors from coming into contact with radioactive materials or contaminated mining wastes. The middle and lower parts of the site, which are below the rim and inaccessible to visitors, are also contaminated. The middle part of the site has contaminated wastes along the path of an aerial tramway that ran there until it was removed after being replaced by a hoisting shaft in 1959. The original "glory hole" in the lower part of the site (clearly visible from Maricopa Point) is also radioactive.
The National Park Service acquired the patented land at the mine site in 1963. Extraction rights retained by the operator expired in 1987.
During the period 1956-1969 this underground mine produced, among other things, 2,130 tons of U3O8, a uranium compound that is a naturally occurring (and comparatively stable) form of yellowcake. Yellowcake, which is commonly produced in concentrated form by refining mills as an intermediate step in ore processing, is further processed (and may be enriched) to manufacture nuclear weapons or reactor fuel for nuclear fission power plants. (We have a plant that makes nuclear fuel assemblies right here in Columbia, South Carolina.) Although this mine produced 3,349 tons of copper and appreciable amounts of other valuable metals and minerals during its working life, it is the uranium production history of this mine that makes the abandoned site a matter of concern.
The National Park Service's preliminary environmental investigations of the upper mine area confirmed the presence of hazardous materials. The tailings (waste rock) and ore at this site are radiologically contaminated. Radiation levels are elevated (in excess of 0.057 mR/hour) on at least 10 acres of the site and in a visitor-use area to the west. The combined beta and gamma counts sometimes exceed 3.0 mR/hour.
Having confirmed that hazardous materials are present, the Park Service initiated further evaluation pursuant to the provisions of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability act (CERCLA). The ensuing Engineering Evaluation/Cost Analysis (EE/CA) will analyze the necessity for cleanup action and the cost of various cleanup alternatives for the upper mine area. When finished, the EE/CA will be made available for public review and comment.
As you can see, this is a very methodical and time-consuming process. The EE/CA process for the middle and lower parts of the mine site is not even scheduled to begin until 2010.