Sunday, October 4, 2009

An Earlier Prospecting Fizzle 1974-7

Here is a map from 35 years ago when Exxon Corporation --it of the Exxon Valdez -- came to Lake Mead NRA to prospect for uranium. In the previous post, the miners' target areas are farther east, west of Kanab Creek, south of Fredonia, and also on the south of the Canyon. Another area once tapped by prospectors was the Hualapai land south of the river (not shown here). Overall, there have no doubt been thousands of claims. Which is to say, throw a lump of yellowcake at the Grand Canyon region and it most likely will land on somebody's claim, though too it most likely will be the only uranium around.

The dashed box in the big map is Exxon's area of interest.
Left is a detail map of the four Exxon leases. Five sections due west of the easternmost block is the Copper Mountain mine, a long-worked spot for copper, over 200' deep.  In early 1973, John McComb, then Sierra Club Southwest Representative, and I had had a scare about that mine being re-opened. It turned out to be the usual "exploratory stage", the lessee "attempting to interest" speculators.
One of the northern sections had been leased to a local since 1966, with no apparent action. Then in July 1974, the Exxon Corporation heaved into view, asking for leases to explore the possible "extensive" uranium deposits, including on that existing lease. Now look at the southernmost black block.

That block, the superintendent at Lake Mead wrote to BLM (which does the actual leasing), was inside a proposed wilderness area (35 years later, it is still only proposed; another story)--although the Secretary of the Interior had put the proposal on the shelf for three years. Also there would be a new road. So in October, he recommended that the lease for that block be denied. That he had discretion to oppose the lease had been backed up by the Secretary and then Supreme Court in the early 1960's. BLM promptly denied that part of the Exxon application.

Also in October, in Washington, the House of Representatives passed a GCNP Enlargement bill that added this portion of the LMNRA to the Park. [Digression: The Senate wouldn't agree, but in 1999 President Clinton withdrew it all from mining and designated it part of the Grand Canyon - Parashant National Monument.] No matter; in November, Exxon notified BLM it would appeal the denial of that one section. In January, we struck back, telling the LMNRA superintendent that any leasing required a full environmental impact statement (EIS). The superintendent agreed.

When the appeal finally arrived four months later, after two extensions, it was a 60+ page legal brief. Meanwhile, Congress had agreed that BLM and NPS should study the area to see if it qualified as a National Park. Exxon's appeal read as a slashing attack on the Wilderness Act process. Inside Interior, the opinion was voiced that the Superintendent had full discretion to deny a lease, whether or not wilderness was involved, and should not have used the wilderness argument since the Secretary had shelved proposal. Agreement was then reached that Exxon would not push an appeal, and would not have to since LMNRA would drop its objection. May 1974, all leases were granted, without any concession by Exxon as far as the impact of its work. NPS further backed off by saying only that it would do an environmental assessment, but that would have a public review.

In this hastily assembled assessment, NPS spoke of the "attractive" argument that there was a "sharply increased price for yellow cake". It did note without comment that NPS was to study whether the area containing the lease was park-worthy. It passed by Exxon's plan to use an "illegal trail" instead of a newly bladed road. In August, based on this cursory review, LMNRA decided there would be no environmental impact. However, there was no public review before the negative impact conclusion was announced. In September, McComb "firmly" re-stated an EIS was required, just as NPS higher-ups approved the "no impact" conclusion, although the leases had already been signed. In October, the assessment conclusion was announced with a month allowed to make comments.

At the time, we had none of the documents I am using to write this account, and the only way we knew anything was through telephone contact with one or another more or less friendly official. This story of NPS "flexibility" behind the scenes is not uncommon, and is probably evident in the current (2008-9) prospecting furor, just as the same tools are being used. So, starting in mid-October, we were alerting other organizations and protesting to the NPS, while presenting the matter to the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, then one of the environment's innovative legal champions. Given that we considered the leasing a "major threat" to the Grand Canyon, and given that Exxon had demonstrated its willingness to hit heavy, we had to hit back by emphasizing how NPS had failed in its job, in particular in not seeing that leasing is only a first step toward a potential devastating mine, and the agency had a responsibility to take the widest, longest view. Now that is true, and in an endeavor trying to understand what futures the Grand Canyon can expect from many different actors, tribes, I want to understand why NPS so often fails to take that view for the Canyon.

To set the lawyers into action, McComb summarized the situation, saying "the legal situation here may make this an attractive place to test the question of when an environmental statement should be prepared in relation to mineral leasing" in an NRA. The Grand Canyon chapter called on the SCLDF to take action. So in early November, the SCLDF wrote LMNRA saying it was studying the matter, and asked for a 30-day extension. There were newspaper articles in Las Vegas, Denver, Tucson, the AP, and Washington (it mattered then). Then something strange happened; the NPS Director said no one had the authority to approve or issue mining permits. On the same day, the SCLDF launched its 12-page additional comments. A press release followed, with the Club "appalled" at NPS action and inaction. The NPS reply, from the Director, was that NPS had become "powerless" to revoke the lease, that the authority was vested elsewhere. SCLDF showed it didn't care by also going after NPS inaction on mining in Death Valley, and ended the year by drafting the necessary legal documents to file suit to prevent Exxon and NPS from activity on the Canyon lease areas.

Forty letters came in during the public review period, over half the comments dealing with the wilderness and park qualities, and others objecting to the process. Later, almost twice as many repeated these themes. NPS actually tried to respond to this opposition by suggesting lease cancellation or severe limitation. We also initiated a flurry of inquiries to pin down just who was in charge. And we kept up personal contact with Interior officials, and with LMNRA staff who were friendly. This seemed to indicate that after all the back and forth, there were just too many errors in the process for the leases to survive.  In February 1976, the local's lease came up for renewal, and was denied. A Parks Advisory Committee was against the leasing. We continued to hear informally that ways were being sought to end the leases. In April, a bunch of anti-lease letters (quite similar) came to LMNRA from across the country. There had been a tv story, and the Secretary had been asked about it at a press conference. Now blaming bureaucrats for messing up, there was mutual finger-pointing. A reporter from a New York paper was even digging out memos, and we were talking about a "dumb" situation NPS could have avoided.

On June 23, all the humble pie was digested and the Secretary sent Exxon a letter saying no environmental "analysis" had been prepared. The lawyers now said to suspend operations and prepare an "analysis". The news release is an embarrassment, saying it was "discovered" there had been no such analysis. Of course, LMNRA had tried to get away with an environmental assessment showing no negative impact, but had been caught out by the fact that the leases were located in an area of potential Congressional and national interest.

In 1977, Exxon did poke around in the area; we tried to check on them. I spoke with a USGS geologist who had a new paper, showing just how complicated breccia pipes can be. The lawyers worked to complicate the legal situation.  The NPS Denver Service Center worked on the environmental assessment, and produced in July a very nice document with a whole range of alternative actions, all of which were rendered moot on July 20, when Exxon notified BLM that it had conducted "exploration activities" outside LMNRA over two years with negative results. So, it "had no further interest". Ha! Me neither.

P.S. In November 1977, LMNRA wrote me their observations of Exxon activity in nearby Dansill Canyon earlier in the year. There was a dirt road, 5 or 6 switchbacks up a 35% slope, and about one acre of drill pads. Drill holes were insignificant, but road and pads will be evident for some time.

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