Could uranium exploration spring back to life in southern Utah?

Anson Resources says it plans to ‘fast track’ operations in the Yellow Cat mining district.

(Gwen Dilworth) An abandoned structure sits along a dirt road in the Yellow Cat Mining District area.

The land north of Arches National Park is pocked with markings of the Cold War-era uranium prospecting frenzy’s not-so-distant past: shuttered mines, rusted vehicle frames and tangles of roads leading to nowhere.

The landscape concedes the obvious: the Yellow Cat region’s uranium boom didn’t last. In 2002, the Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining (UDOGM) closed over 100 abandoned mine openings in the area. Today, it is quiet, a destination for history buff adventurers and dispersed camping.

That could change, however, as uranium prices continue to soar.

In October, Australia-based Anson Resources announced it plans to “fast track” exploration at its Yellow Cat Project, 19 miles north of Moab. The company wrote that it “has accelerated its exploration drilling program” and “…is preparing to carry out environmental and cultural surveys” to submit notices to UDOGM and the Bureau of Land Management.

This month, a representative for the company told The Times-Independent that Anson Resources is “still conducting surveys related to these assets, but no decision has been made on their development,” noting that Anson Resources’ primary focus is on lithium exploration.

UDOGM and the BLM both said they have not received notice from Anson Resources of any exploratory drilling activity in the area.

Sarah Fields, the program director of Uranium Watch, said that while uranium production is ramping up across the nation, “mining companies have a long history of getting people to invest in them and not doing much mining.”

The price of uranium hit a 16-year high in late January, reaching $106 per pound. The last uranium boom occurred in 2007, when prices reached $140 per pound before quickly deflating.

Fields said that despite her skepticism that companies like Anson Resources will follow through on their promises, prospecting, too, has impacts. She pointed to the La Sal Mountains. “You see all these roads that seem to go to nowhere, and that’s from exploration,” she said. She also has concerns about surface disturbance and the potential for groundwater contamination in these areas.

Anson Resources declined to answer The Times-Independent’s questions about the company’s plans for uranium and vanadium extraction in the Yellow Cat region.

Steve Bloch, the legal director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, said his organization has been paying close attention to the recent uptick in mining claims in southeast Utah.

He noted that SUWA hopes that part of the Yellow Cat area will become congressionally designated wilderness under the America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act, a bill that has been introduced to the U.S. House of Representatives since 1989.

He said he also has concerns about the risks that uranium mining poses to human health and “the lasting scars that uranium mining leaves on the ground.

“When you disturb land in Grand County,” he said, “it stays disturbed for a long time. And that only gets worse as the Colorado Plateau gets hotter and dryer.”

He said that the General Mining Act of 1872, which governs hard rock mining on federal public land, doesn’t have the teeth needed to protect the environment. “The law predates every environmental law we have now and they don’t interact well together,” he said.

Anson Resources is not the only company ramping up its uranium projects. In December, Colorado-based Energy Fuels announced that it had commenced uranium production at three mines, including two locations in San Juan County. Other companies have followed suit, swayed by high spot prices and support for nuclear energy from the Biden administration.

Bloch noted, however, that he is less concerned by Anson Resources’ individual projects than with their many mining enterprises in Grand and Emery counties.

“If you step back from any one project and look at the synergistic impacts of a variety of the proposals, we think they could be significant,” Bloch said.

Anson Resources’ 2023 stockholder’s report indicates that the company holds thousands of placer claims in Southeast Utah. The claims are held by several subsidiary companies, including A1 Lithium Inc, Blackstone Resources Inc and Blackstone Minerals NV LLC. Most of the claims are for lithium extraction.

Bloch said that because Anson Resources operates through many subsidiary companies, it was at first difficult to track their claims. “Now we’re starting to get a much cleaner picture of what it looks like,” he said.

It is possible that Anson’s Yellow Cat claims could face more scrutiny due to their proximity to a national park.

In 2021, Anson Resources’ Las Vegas-based subsidiary company A1 Lithium submitted a plan to explore two abandoned wells along Highway 313, a scenic byway, a few miles north of Canyonlands National Park and Dead Horse Point State Park. The wells would have been visible from parks and the road. The BLM withdrew their approval of the project in April after SUWA argued the agency had failed to complete adequate analysis of impacts to water resources.

“The Yellow Cat Mining District is on the doorstep of Arches National Park,” said Bloch. “…I think expectations are rightly high that the BLM and the National Park Service make sure that any operation here doesn’t threaten the park.”