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Uranium mine north of Grand Canyon to stay open

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. -- A mining company's plan to stockpile uranium ore at a mine north of the Grand Canyon has raised concern among environmentalists over radioactive dust being swept across the landscape.

But Energy Fuels Resources Inc. said Thursday that there's no need to worry because a state permit requires that dust be monitored and controlled, no homes are nearby, and the dust isn't highly radioactive.

The company planned to place the Pinenut Mine on standby in July because of decreasing prices for uranium. Company spokesman Curtis Moore said Thursday that it makes more sense economically to keep the 30 to 40 workers onboard and extract all the ore possible from the site through the first quarter of 2015, avoiding shut-down and startup costs.

The ore will be stockpiled on a pad that stretches across 2 acres onsite because of an earlier decision to at least temporarily shut down production later this year at the company's White Mesa Mill in Blanding, Utah. Moore said officials are expecting to store the ore on a portion of the pad until prices for uranium rebound.

``No matter how long that ore is out there, we have to maintain the site. We have to monitor it,'' he said. ``It will be heavily regulated.''

The mine operates under a permit from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. Agency spokeswoman Deborah Stevens said officials are reviewing the operating plan to see if the stockpiling of uranium ore at the site, about 35 miles south of Fredonia near the Arizona-Utah border, falls within the scope of that plan.

Less than a handful of uranium mines have been operating in northern Arizona recently. The mines owned by Energy Fuels lie in a nearly 1 million-acre area around the Grand Canyon but outside the national park boundaries that was placed off-limits to new mining claims in January 2012. Companies with existing claims that were proven to have sufficient quantity and quality of mineral resources could be developed under a decision by the U.S. Interior Department.

The Pinenut Mine was partially developed in the late 1980s, but it sat idle until mid-2013. Energy Fuels expects to extract 250,000 pounds of uranium from the mine between August and the time the mine closes next year, for a combined 600,000 pounds, Moore said.

Spraying water on the landscape has proven to be an effective dust-control measure, he said. Other options include applying magnesium chloride to the stockpile or covering it.

Roger Clark of the environmental group the Grand Canyon Trust said the uncertainty over how long the uranium ore could sit at the site is unsettling. Any water sprayed on the pile or rain that falls on it is diverted to a fenced, uncovered catchment pond that small animals and birds can drink from before it evaporates, he said.

``This could be another indefinite situation, just like the mines, where the price of uranium doesn't come up,'' Clark said. ``Then, once again, there is an increased risk of harm to public resources in terms of radioactive dust.''

Energy Fuels has three aquifer-protection permits for the Pinenut mine from the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality for a non-storm water pond, a temporary waste rock stockpile and the ore stockpile. Department spokesman Mark Shaffer said the company is required to keep any engineered feature in good working condition.

While the department hasn't discussed Energy Fuels' latest announcement with the company, Shaffer said: ``We are comfortable that the application materials provided originally for the stockpile demonstrate that they can comply with the existing design and operational requirements.''

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