• 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5

Uranium Mining in the Grand Canyon and the Colorado Plateau: What's the Big Deal?

The remains of what was once the Orphan Uranium Mine at the Rim of the Grand Canyon National Park.The remains of what was once the Orphan Uranium Mine at the Rim of the Grand Canyon National Park.

It was early February, and my buddies and I were embarking on our annual Super Bowl backpacking trip into the Grand Canyon, a tradition we had started in 1996 during the Super Bowl weekend in Tempe, Arizona.  It was an attempt that first year to escape the Valley and the football-crazy crowds that would be swarming the Phoenix Metropolitan Area. And, backpacking the Grand Canyon in the winter, while presenting certain challenges, has its advantages. It’s a lot easier to obtain a permit, and you can expect to see very few hikers compared to the spring and fall months. That first year was such a success that we decided to make it an annual tradition.

Part 1

It was early February, and my buddies and I were embarking on our annual Super Bowl backpacking trip into the Grand Canyon, a tradition we had started in 1996 during the Super Bowl weekend in Tempe, Arizona.  It was an attempt that first year to escape the Valley and the football-crazy crowds that would be swarming the Phoenix Metropolitan Area. And, backpacking the Grand Canyon in the winter, while presenting certain challenges, has its advantages. It’s a lot easier to obtain a permit, and you can expect to see very few hikers compared to the spring and fall months. That first year was such a success that we decided to make it an annual tradition.

Grand Canyon Arizona rim trail view, on the way to the now defunct Orphan Mine (uranium mine).Grand Canyon Arizona rim trail view, on the way to the now defunct Orphan Mine (uranium mine).So, now its 1998, and it’s my turn to be the trip leader.  In our group, the trip leader is responsible for stitching together an interesting and challenging itinerary that takes into consideration water availability, reasonable backpacking distances between camp sites, and possibly multi-day camping spots with interesting day hikes. The trip leader is responsible for monitoring the weather and recommending how much water, food, and clothing will most likely be required. The trip leader is also responsible for applying for and obtaining the permit from the Grand Canyon Back Country Office and informing the group of any unique aspects of the hike that would be important for the group’s awareness.  

The permit, outlining the daily itinerary, must be attached to the trip leader’s pack at all times. Park Service rangers regularly hike the Canyon, and when encountered, will check your permit to make sure you are where you’re supposed to be on any given day of the trip.  If you are not, you can get into a whole bunch of trouble. I know this to be a fact, because on one of my many trips into the Canyon, we encountered a park ranger, and after discovering that we were not properly permitted, he told our group… ”I’m sorry, but you will have to leave the Canyon.” But that is another story for another time.

On this particular trip, our plan was to head down the Hermit Trail to Hermit Rapids the first day, then on to Monument Creek and Granite Rapids the second day, then hike eight miles and spend one night at Horn Creek, and then follow the Tonto Trail to the Bright Angel Trail and hike out.  It all worked perfectly, until we arrived at Horn Creek.  To our shock and dismay, there was a sign posted warning hikers to not drink the water due to contamination by a uranium mining operation above the creek on the rim of the Grand Canyon. I couldn’t believe that the Back Country Office would not mention this somewhere along the line when I was obtaining the permit.  Then, one of my buddies checked the permit on my pack and found that it clearly stated not to drink the water in Horn Creek.  I never bothered to read the permit!

We had no choice but to push on to Indian Gardens to spend the night. It was 2.5 miles further down the Tonto Trail to the Bright Angel Trail and Indian Gardens. My buddies were merciless for the rest of the trip and verbally flogged me for failing to fulfill my responsibilities as the trip leader by missing such an obvious critical detail. It was all in fun of course, and I have never been on a backpacking trip in the Canyon that went exactly as planned.  So why should this trip be any different?

What bothered me more than the verbal flogging was the fact that a natural spring in the Canyon had been forever contaminated by a uranium mining operation on the Rim! Who in their right mind would conduct a uranium mining operation on the very rim of one of the world’s greatest treasures? I had to find out more about this mine and why it was there.

A Brief history of the Orphan Mine

The Orphan Mine is perched on the very edge of the Grand Canyon about two-miles west of the Bright Angel Lodge. The actual mining operation was located below the Rim of the Canyon, but approximately four acres of the twenty-acre site is located on the top of the Rim. A beautiful two-mile stroll along the Rim Trail west from the Bright Angel Lodge will get you to the site.

The history of the Orphan Mine begins in 1893, when a gentleman named Dan Hogan filed a claim for a copper mine on the edge of the Grand Canyon. In 1906, he was able to convince Teddy Roosevelt, who he had served with in the RoughRiders during the Spanish American War, to issue him a patent in1906 for a mining claim for a copper mine located on the rim of the Grand Canyon. Hogan named this claim the Orphan Mine (Hogan was an orphan). The twenty-acre claim was centered on a geologic formation known as a breccia pipe, at the head of Horn Creek Canyon.

Breccia pipes are scattered throughout the Colorado Plateau and were formed when overlying rocks collapsed into caverns formed in the Redwall Limestone Formation. Breccia pipes are typically 300 feet in diameter, and can extend up to 3,000 feet vertically into the bedrock. A little more than four acres rested on the Rim of the Grand Canyon and the remainder of the twenty acres stretched down into the Coconino Sandstone.  Breccia pipes around the Southwest are the source of some of the richest uranium deposits in the world.

After failing to produce enough copper to make the effort financially worthwhile, Hogan ceased mining operations. He and his partner, Babbitt,  were unable to produce enough copper from the mine to make mining in the difficult spot worthwhile. Instead, they turned their attention to tourism and it very quickly turned out to be a profitable decision.

The four acres perched on top of the Rim had spectacular views in every direction. Because of the growing popularity of the Grand Canyon, and in an effort to attract tourists, Hogan invested in a complex including cabins, stores, and a saloon that became known as the Grand Canyon Inn. With the coming of World War II in the early 1940’s, Hogan was forced to close the facility. Hogan sold the patent for the twenty acres to Madeleine Jacobs in 1946. At the time, the National Park Service wanted to acquire the unregulated private property, but for some reason, it chose not to compete with Jacobs for its purchase. Because of this inaction, the land remained in private hands for the next forty-one years.

Sign tells story of the Orphan Mine uranium mining operation on the rim of the Grand Canyon.Sign tells story of the Orphan Mine uranium mining operation on the rim of the Grand Canyon.
Once Jacobs had possession of the property, she reopened the facility to tourists and over the next few years, leased it to various operators, including Will Rogers, Jr. However, in 1951, she discovered that the mine contained some of the richest uranium deposits in the American Southwest which soon made the Orphan Mine a key part of the uranium mining boom that stretched across the western states during the Cold War.

The Golden Crown Mining Company acquired the mine and associated property from Jacobs in 1953. Three years later, the company merged with Utah-based Western Gold and Uranium, Inc., which operated the Orphan Mine for the next thirteen years. The first shipment of uranium ore left the Orphan Mine in April 1956.

The production of uranium ore from the Orphan Mine soon demonstrated that it was one the richest uranium deposits in the country at a time when it was in the midst of the Cold War and increasingly concerned about nuclear security. When Western Gold determined that the ore body continued beyond the private property boundary and into the National Park itself, mining stalled as company officials argued with the federal government about whether federal mining laws allowed it to extract ore within the national park. In order to convince the federal government to allow them to extract ore from within the national park, the company threatened to build an 18 story, 600-room hotel on the site if their desire to expand the mining operation was denied.
    
After a protracted congressional battle, the arguments that the mine was necessary for national security and critical to the Arizona economy convinced Congress to pass the Orphan Mine Bill. In 1962, President John F. Kennedy signed the Orphan Mine Bill into law, which allowed the mine’s owners to follow the ore body from private land into public land for the next twenty-five years, at which time the mine ownership would revert to the National Park Service.

Once the Orphan Mine Bill was signed into law, the company increased its efforts to produce uranium. The mine was finally closed for good on April 29 1969. In 1987, the entire site, including its numerous outbuildings and the abandoned mine, was turned over to the National Park Service. By the time mining halted for good in 1969, approximately sixty percent of its total production had come from inside the Grand Canyon National Park’s boundaries. In its thirteen years of active operation, the Orphan Mine produced 800,000 tons of ore, yielding 13 million pounds of uranium. It had produced 4.26 million pounds of uranium oxide U308, 6.68 million pounds of copper, over 100,000 ounces of silver and 3,400 pounds of vanadium oxide.

Sign showing the Orphan Mine during its years of operation.Sign showing the Orphan Mine during its years of operation.

Since that time, the Park Service has been cleaning up the site and mitigating the environmental hazards caused by uranium mining. In 2008, the Park Service removed all physical signs of the mining operation. Contamination from low-level radiation remains an issue, and signs are posted around the property warning visitors about the hazard. It is estimated that it will cost in excess of $15 million to clean up the Orphan Mine site. Ironically, during the time the mine was in private hands, it generated millions of dollars in profits to the owners as they extracted the uranium ore form the mine at the expense of the surrounding environment. Yet, it is the taxpayers who will end up picking up the tab for the cleanup.

Orphan Mine entrance is blocked and danger signs are posted.Orphan Mine entrance is blocked and danger signs are posted.

I know what you are thinking… “Gosh, this is terrible, but something like this could never happen again, so why worry about it?” Not so fast. Since the mine closed, thousands of uranium mining claims have been filed west, east, north, and south of the Grand Canyon as the price of uranium ore has increased over the years. Even though there have been many changes in mining operations that make uranium mining much safer today than it was during the operation of the Orphan Mine, mining activities still threaten the environment as well as the native and non-native populations that live around the Colorado Plateau.  So let’s “drill down” (no pun intended) a bit further to understand this potential environmental disaster.

See PART TWO.

See PART THREE.

Tags: uranium mining

Print


Follow Us