One would think that in Arizona, which has the worst mining laws and regulations of any state in the union, the mining industry would realize how good they’ve got it.  However, in their quest to mine fettered only by the limits of their own greed, min ing companies carp as loudly as ever about being over-burdened and over-regulated to death. Mining companies trot out a list as long as your arm about how many reports and permits they are required to obtain.  However, given the track record of the mining industry in Arizona, there is a good reason for regulation – for nearly 150 years, mining in Arizona has proven to be a social and environmental nightmare. The truth however, is far different. Arizona requires mines that effect groundwater to receive Aquifer Protection Permits (APP). According to the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ), without an APP, the department cannot regulate the mines.  Common sense would dictate that it would be difficult to grant a permit without first knowing what exactly the mining company wants to do, what the background conditions are before mining begins, the extent of the impending pollution, or what the company plans to do (if anything) to clean up after themselves.  However, the permits themselves are granted before many of the required reports are written, monitoring is complete, and mitigation measures put in place.  To make matters worse, while ADEQ requires that mines put a bond in place to guarantee that they will clean up, the state allows mines to use corporate guarantees (essentially a company IOU to the state of Arizona) instead of cash. To top it off, ADEQ allows mining companies to operate on the honor system.  They are allowed to conduct their own environmental monitoring, self report any violations, and are rarely visited by regulators. How has this worked? A good recent example comes involves the Arizona 1 uranium mine being operated by Denison Mines since December of 2009 on the north rim of the Grand Canyon. It took more than 9 mines after the mine opened for ADEQ to inspect the mine for the first time. When they conducted the inspection, ADEQ inspectors only visited the surface of the mine and did not venture into the 1,250 foot deep mine.  Still, they found at least 4 major violations.
  • Plans for the mine did not match what was actually built.
  • Pumps were not installed to de-water the mine.
  • A pipe was sticking out of a lined pond that was supposed to prevent groundwater contamination.
  • Permeability tests of rocks in the mine walls had not been performed.
  • Pond liners were heavily patched (sometimes with patches over patches) and frequently the patches were weighted down with rocks.
In addition, numerous plans and drawing that were supposed to be completed before the mine began operations still are not complete. Keep in mind that this is a uranium mine on the north rim of the Grand Canyon.  If groundwater were to become contaminated by this mine, it would be almost impossible to clean up the damage.  If ADEQ cannot guarantee that pollution would be prevented here, how can we expect them to safeguard our water, health, and safety at other locations? For more information about violations at the Arizona 1 mine, see an article published on January 16th in the Arizona Daily Sun