Holbrook Basin, Arizona
The Environmental Cost of Mineral Exploitation
Located south of the Navajo and Hopi reservations in Arizona, the Holbrook Basin is wholly contained within the larger Little Colorado River Watershed. The heart of the Holbrook Basin rests in a triangle of land created by the confluence of the Little Colorado River and its main tributary, the Rio Puerco. On its eastern flank, the Holbrook Basin overlaps the fragile environment of Petrified Forest National Park. Over the years, the Holbrook Basin has been a hotbed of mineral exploration, if not major exploitation. Oil, natural gas and uranium ore are but a few of the resources prospected or extracted from the Holbrook Basin.
Upstream and to the east of Holbrook, the confluence of the Rio Puerco and the Little Colorado River creates a larger, seasonal flow. Radiochemical contamination is present in the alluvial aquifer along the Puerco River. The elevated levels of gross alpha and gross beta are caused by the movement of uranium-, radium-, and thorium-rich sediments from the 1979 Church Rock uranium mine tailing pond spill in New Mexico (Webb and others, 1988) and discharges of mine dewatering effluent, which ceased in 1986 (U.S. Geological Survey, 1991b).
Movement of existing radionuclides is due to discharges from the sewage-treatment plant in Gallup, New Mexico (U.S. Geological Survey, 1991b). This area is considered one of the principal water-quality problem areas in the state (Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, 1990). After learning late about prior nuclear contamination along the Rio Puerco, the Navajo Nation outlawed uranium mining on its reservation in 2005. In 2010, despite Navajo objections, Uranium Resources, Inc. (URI) received approval to restart uranium mining within the contamination zone created by the 1979 spill.
Strathmore Minerals Corp. (purchased by Energy Fuels Corp. in 2013) is also listed as controlling 640 acres adjacent to the URI site. The ninety-four million gallon Church Rock Spill was the largest release of low-level nuclear radiation in U.S. history. Despite that, in-situ recovery (ISR) mines are now being planned for the area. With the use of hydraulic injection and subsequent pumping, both groundwater depletion and produced water are of concern to the Navajo Nation. Subsequent to the 1979 spill, the Navajo were not told that surface flow along the Rio Puerco was caused largely by uranium mine dewatering. Pre-ancestral memories run deep. To this day, cattle and domestic animals rely on the alluvial aquifer of the Rio Puerco to quench their thirst.
According to mining industry sources, the Holbrook Basin is located in an area with excellent infrastructure and is known to contain a 600 square mile potash bed in its Permian Supai Formation (Arizona Geological Survey Open File Report 08-07). The potash bed was drilled and delineated in the 1960s and 1970s by Duvall Corporation and Arkla Exploration. Due to low potash prices in the 1970's the Holbrook Basin potash bed saw no development since its discovery.
A recent AZJournal article quotes the Arizona Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (AZOGCC) as saying, "There are now 38 core holes permitted in the Holbrook Basin. While Passport Potash holds the permits to 19 of those holes, HNZ Potash, also known as HNZ Holding, LLC, a joint venture of Hunt Oil and NZ Legacy Resources, holds the other 19 permits. Efforts to contact the company have gone without response, but according to its now defunct website, HNZ Potash is the largest private owner of the Holbrook Basin deposit with a reported land position of 74,000 acres." The former HNZ website was so secretive that it required the visitor to defeat a log-in request before accessing their Home Page. Drilling applications filed with the state indicate that HNZ now controls the old Arkla Exploration properties, first explored over fifty years ago.
In March 2011, Ringbolt Ventures entered into agreement with Passport Potash, Inc. for the exploration and development of Ringbolt Holbrook Basin potash property. Ringbolt Ventures (and now Passport Potash) has been granted fifteen State mineral exploration permits in the Holbrook Basin. On their website, they say, "If compared to the Saskatchewan, Canada mines that operate at far greater depths, the relatively shallow depths of these occurrences should lend its self towards a much larger recovery of the potash ore”. At the time of this writing, Passport was continuing negotiations with the Karlsson Group Inc. on the terms of a Definitive Cooperative Agreement (the "DCA") in which Passport and Karlsson outline plans to jointly develop their potash resources. By combining holdings, Passport and Karlsson control over 120 sections of state and private lands which total nearly 80,000 acres.
On the Passport Potash website, they once displayed an image of conventional (shaft mining) and a diagram of in-situ recovery (solution) mining. There they say, “Potash deposits in the Holbrook Basin are considered shallow by industry standards, with deposits ranging at depths of between 800 and 1300 ft., which is a major advantage for Passport.” Nowhere on the website do they indicate a preference for one mining technique over the other.
To what extent Passport Potash will pump ground water from the aquifer adjacent the Little Colorado River remains to be seen. In discussing their recent exploratory drilling program, Passport said, “This hole represents the first exploration for potash within the boundaries of the Twin Buttes Ranch (on their Holbrook Basin property) in more than forty-five years. Potash was intercepted in this hole and has been confirmed by both visual inspection and by downhole geophysical logging”.
Further, they said, “Upon completion of drilling and logging, the hole has been converted into a producing water well. Water is present in the well and will be used in the ongoing drill program at a considerable cost saving to the company. The company has also set up a field office at the well site and this area will now serve as a base of operations from this point forward.” Although water wells are necessary to explore the location and extent of potash reserves, the public is left to believe that Passport Potash might use conventional shaft mining for their Holbrook Basin project. Was their “producing well” intended only for exploration, or did it foreshadow full-scale hydraulic injection mining throughout the basin? If not, why does the current Arizona Geological Survey map show forty-five wells permitted in the Holbrook Basin by the state since 2009?
With her Pulitzer Prize-worthy reporting, Linda Kor was first to break the story that Passport Potash plans an in-situ recovery (ISR) mine on their Holbrook Holdings. In a March 18, 2011 AZJournal article, Kor interviewed Passport Potash mine engineer Allen Wells. Wells was quick to point out that while other types of mining use cyanide or acids to flush out minerals, in mining potash, the only solution that will be used is salt and water. When asked where the water would come from for the project, Wells referred to the aquifer that runs beneath the earth’s surface. “With the current drilling that we’re doing the aquifer is pumping 200 gallons per minute. We would be pumping 2,000 gallons per minute to provide the solution for the mine,” he stated.
Prior to the granting of a full mining permit, the public has a right to know, once and for all, if Passport Potash plans to operate a conventional mine or a solution mine in the Holbrook Basin. If Passport Potash plans a conventional mine, then I say, “Bravo”. A conventional mine at Twin Buttes Ranch should not place significant additional burden on the water table of an already overstressed regional aquifer. Their stated intention to pump up to 2,000 gallons of water per minute in support of an in-situ potash mine does not bode well for the indigenous cultures of the Little Colorado River Basin. Only by retaining a steady state in the regional aquifers can the Navajo and the Hopi avoid seeing their wells go dry, thus ending over 4200 years of continuous cultivation on their sacred tribal lands.
Comment by Carla Padilla on July 30, 2016 12:25 PM.
My great grandfather was Juan Padilla. He was the first to settle by the confluence of the Lift Colorado River & the Rio Puerco. My father told me he had Spanish land grants & he settled this area because there was plenty of water and the grass was as tall as his chest. It is so very sad to see that this precious commodity has now been contaminated by human negligence.
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