Two Canadian uranium mining companies on Tuesday announced plans to drill 25 exploratory wells on the edge of Bears Ears National Monument, raising the possibility of large-scale industrial development on some of the nation’s most sensitive lands without much in the way of environmental review.
Atomic Minerals Corp. holds 324 mining claims covering 6,480 acres of public land at Harts Point in San Juan County, northwest of Monticello, according to a company news release that announces a binding agreement with a second firm called Kraken Energy to develop the claims. Both companies are headquartered in Vancouver, B.C. and their shares are traded on Canadian exchanges.
Claiming this land could hold some of the nation’s richest uranium deposits, Atomic says it already holds permits from the Bureau of Land Management for the wells which can be drilled once a $58,000 bond is posted.
The announcement stunned Utah wilderness advocates who say the project highlights so much that is wrong with the nation’s antiquated mining laws.
“You have an operator who, with very minimal notice and very minimal review, can go out, literally a stone’s throw from Bears Ears, and drill 25 wells,” said Landon Newell, a staff attorney with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. “That’s crazy.”
Last October, Atomic Minerals announced its U.S. subsidiary Recoupment Exploration Co. LLC staked the 324 20-acre uranium claims at Harts Point. The claims were staked under the 1872 Mining Law, enacted at a time when the government prioritized mineral development over other uses on public land.
“Federal land managers are on record declaring that the 1872 Mining Law gives them no choice but to permit mining, no matter if the land is better used for recreation, conservation, renewable energy, or even fossil fuel extraction,” states EarthWorks, a nonprofit devoted to reforming the law, in a policy statement. “Loose regulations allow mining companies to come in, dig riches out of the ground, and leave the mess. Too often, taxpayers — not the polluters — are paying for cleanup.”
Newell contends the Canadian uranium companies are relying on outdated and irrelevant reports to support speculation that uranium deposits worth mining exist at Harts Point.
“They are trying to make themselves sound important to drive investor interest,” Newell said. “They are acting like they found the mother load, at the same time they are threatening one of the most scenic landscapes in all of Utah and doing it without public involvement or agency review.”
The BLM could not provide timely comment for this story. An Atomic Minerals officer did not respond to a voicemail.
The uranium boom of yesteryear inflicted a legacy of well-documented toxic exposures on tribal communities in the Four Corners region still felt to this day. It would be ironic for the federal government to now allow industry to develop new uranium assets on public lands the Navajo, Ute and Hopi tribes consider sacred without any tribal consultation.
Harts Point is located on land these tribes had originally proposed for inclusion in Bears Ears National Monument.
The companies’ announcements, which are aimed at potential investors, make no mention of the claims’ proximity to the 1.3-million-acre national monument designated in 2016 by President Barack Obama to protect the region’s countless archaeological sites. The controversial designation came at the request of Native American tribes with cultural and ancestral ties to the landscape in San Juan County.
But the companies did highlight the Harts Point’s proximity to the nation’s only operating uranium mill, located 40 road miles away in White Mesa.
Why does Atomic Minerals say uranium could be found here?
According to company chairman Garrett Ainsworth, data from three oil and gas wells drilled decades ago show “off-scale radioactivity,” indicating that deposits could be analogous to the once-productive Lisbon Valley mining district, about 19 miles to the west.
The Lisbon district, where up to 17 mines operated between 1948 and 1988, yielded 80 million pounds of ore containing 0.34% uranium oxide, according to the companies’ news releases.
Newell dismissed the company’s conclusions as speculation.
They looked at old well data, the core samples, and they see there’s allegedly this world-class amount of uranium,” Newell said. “That’s just pure speculation, because the wells are 50 years old. They’re dry holes and they’ve been public knowledge forever. So anybody could have looked at these.
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The drilling will target the Chinle Formation, between 1,200 and 1,400 feet below the surface, which company officials suspect is harboring rich ores. During the uranium boom in the 1950s, this formation was tapped by four mines 7 miles west of Harts Point in what was then known as the Upper Indian District.
“With drilling permits in place and targets selected at Harts Point, our team is eager to begin work on this property in the most prominent uranium mining jurisdiction in the United States,” said Kraken CEO Matthew Schwab in Kraken’s news release.
Under the agreement between the two companies, Kraken is to spend $1.5 million developing the play within 18 months to earn a 65% stake in the claims, and another $2 million within 30 months to secure a 75% stake. The resulting mines would be operated as a joint venture between Kraken and Atomic Minerals.