BLUFF – What was left out of the new Bears Ears National Monument in southeast Utah is upsetting paleontologists, but relieving uranium miners.
Paleontologist Rob Gay, of Museums of Western Colorado, said he is encouraged that the fossils-rich Bears Ears is now protected. But he was disheartened when he found out Red Canyon was dropped from the final monument boundaries.
During a Friends of Cedar Mesa conference March 4 in Bluff, Gay said that fossils in that area are mostly unstudied.
“Red Canyon is the most important paleontology area in southeast Utah,” he said. “The most significant site is not protected.”
The canyon is rich with fossil evidence from the Triassic Period – 251 million to 250 million years ago – when dinosaurs became the dominate form of terrestrial life.
“I’m the only presenter advocating to expand the monument,” Gay said.
The Red Canyon area was left out of the monument’s original proposal to accommodate untapped uranium resources and current mines, including the Daneros Mine, owned by Energy Fuels.
That is a relief for mine companies because national monuments prohibit new mining operations.
Before the designation, “we spoke to a few elected officials and government employees about or concerns,” with the monument boundaries, said Curtis Moore, vice-president of marketing for Energy Fuels.
The Daneros mine is southwest of Fry Canyon, and is three miles from the monument. It is closed, but owners are seeking approval from the Bureau of Land Management to expand the mine from 4.5 acres to 46 acres and increase mining capacity.
The proposal calls for increasing ore production from 100,000 tons over seven years to 500,000 tons over 20 years.
The ore would be delivered in covered trucks from the mine site along Utah 95, past Natural Bridges National Monument, and across the new Bears Ears Monument to the White Mesa Mill, also owned by Energy Fuels.
The mill, located south of Blanding, produces yellowcake a concentrated form of uranium used to make fuel rods for nuclear power plants.
“Our uranium is used to generate clean, carbon-free nuclear energy,” Moore said.
“Most of our current production is sold to U.S. utilities.”
‘Taking a step back’Environmental groups worry about Daneros mine pollution drifting into the monument, and say mixing mining trucks with an increase in tourism traffic on Utah 95 is a bad combination.
“If one of the mine’s haul trucks were to have an accident while driving through Bears Ears, uranium ore could be strewn across the monument’s highways,” says Amber Reimondo, energy program director for Grand Canyon Trust. “Radionuclides from mining activities would inevitably blow into the monument, potentially threatening plants, wildlife and the health of people visiting the monument.”
Lisa Bryant, public affairs officer for the Monticello BLM office, said since the Bears Ears designation, planners are re-evaluating the mine proposal and environmental assessment to determine if any changes are needed.
“We’re taking a step back in light of the designation and taking extra time to see if there are additional stipulations or mitigations needed,” she said.
A decision on the mine expansion is pending. Whether the monument designation will trigger additional regulations for the mine plan is not known yet, Bryant said.
The uranium marketMining uranium depends on uranium prices, which fell after the 2011 Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear power plant meltdown in Japan, which was triggered by an earthquake and tsunami.
But uranium is seeing a slow recovery thanks to increased demand, which could signal a boost in uranium mining activity in the Four Corners region in the near future.
The uranium price rose from $18 per pound in 2016 to $26 per pound in 2017. But it is far from the $65 per pound it fetched before the 2011 Japan nuclear disaster.
Moore, of Energy Fuels, said there are no plans to open the Daneros Mine. He said hard-rock mining projects take many years to obtain permits.
“We work on mining permitting all the time no matter the market conditions,” he said. “That way projects are ready to go when market conditions warrant production. Mining commodities are very cyclical, so if you wait for good prices to start permitting a project you’ll miss the cycle.”
Regarding the Utah 95 route for ore transport, Moore said the company uses public roads, complies with all applicable laws, and have comprehensive policies and procedures for drivers, environmental control and emergency response.
Red Canyon’s fossils were left out of the monument in favor of uranium mining. But ironically, some of the best fossil specimens collected were uncovered from uranium operations.
“In the history of the uranium mining frenzy of Utah and Arizona, there are reports of entire pre-historic dinosaurs found by miners, but they were put in the chipper because they are radioactive,” said Gay, of the Museums of Western Colorado.
This story was reposted on April 8 to report that fossils in the Red Canyon area are associated with the Triassic Period.