Uranium drilling near Bears Ears begins

Exploratory drilling, conducted by two Canadian companies, started in San Juan County last week.

(Neal Clark | Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance) Canadian companies have commenced exploratory uranium drilling at Harts Point, located northwest of Monticello across the road from Bears Ears National Monument.

Two Canadian companies have started exploring for uranium on public land in San Juan County — right across the road from Bears Ears National Monument.

Atomic Minerals Corp. — based in Vancouver, British Columbia — holds 324 mining claims over 6,480 acres of public land in San Juan County. In May 2023, Atomic Minerals entered a binding agreement with another Vancouver company, Kraken Energy Corp., to develop the claims.

On Feb. 26, Atomic Minerals and Kraken announced that they started exploratory uranium drilling at Harts Point, northwest of Monticello. During what the two companies have titled the “Phase I drilling program,” they will explore the area for uranium using two wells.

(Kraken Energy Corp.) This map, provided by one of the Canadian companies that has started exploratory drilling for uranium near Bears Ears National Monument, depicts the Harts Point property.

One of the “Phase I” wells is located across the road that serves as a boundary for Bears Ears National Monument.

“It’s a really inappropriate place for this sort of exploratory uranium drilling to be taking place,” Hanna Larsen, a staff attorney with the nonprofit Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, told The Salt Lake Tribune.

While neither company mentioned the drilling’s proximity to the national monument in their announcements, they lauded their wells’ convenience to the last conventional uranium mill in the country: White Mesa Mill. The mill is just 40 miles away from the Harts Point drilling site.

The two Canadian companies believe there are uranium deposits under Harts Point based on data from over thirty years ago.

According to Kraken, three historic oil and gas wells drilled on the Harts Point property between 1953 and 1980 showed radioactivity. The company also points to mines located west of Harts Point in the Lisbon Valley Uranium District that produced 80 million pounds of ore containing 0.34% uranium oxide from 1948 to 1988.

“This drilling will test the off-scale radioactivity encountered in historic oil and gas drill holes at Harts Point probing the project’s exceptional potential to discover a trend of high-grade uranium deposits located within a pro-mining jurisdiction,” said Atomic Minerals President and CEO Clive Massey in statement. “Harts Point is perfectly situated to capitalize on existing infrastructure and potential future milling capacity in area of known significant historical uranium production as we endeavor to establish Atomic Minerals a leader in the uranium industry.”

Bears Ears National Monument was created by President Barack Obama in 2016 at the request of several Indigenous tribes native to the Colorado Plateau to protect the area’s sensitive landscape and archaeological resources.

In 2017, President Donald Trump reduced the monument to 85% of its original size, citing opposition from Utah leaders. President Joe Biden restored the monument to its initial acreage in 2021.

Atomic Minerals staked its 324 mining claims in San Juan County in October 2022 through its American subsidiary, Recoupment Exploration Company LLC, using a 19th-century mining law. That legislation says that all mineral deposits in the U.S. are open to exploration and purchase.

The Bureau of Land Management oversees the land on which Atomic Minerals’ mining claims are located. According to Kraken Energy’s Notice of Intent to conduct uranium exploration at Harts Point filed in November 2023, their operations will disturb 1.085 acres.

Operations covering 5 acres or less do not have to submit a plan of operations to the BLM, which constitutes a more rigorous review process. In this case, the agency must decide whether the operations cause ”unnecessary and undue degradation,” rather than conduct a formal environmental review process.

“BLM needs to take a critical, hard look at what’s going on here, and at least from what we know now, we haven’t seen that,” Larsen said.

The BLM did not respond to The Tribune’s request for comment in time for publication.

The spot price of uranium has skyrocketed in the last year. Last March, uranium was valued at $40.73 per pound. That value has almost doubled to $80.36 per pound as of Feb. 9, 2024, according to YCharts.

Mining companies far and wide are hoping to cash in the high prices on the Colorado Plateau. Energy Fuels Resources Inc., a Colorado company, plans to start mining uranium at its mines in Arizona (near the Grand Canyon), Colorado and Utah.

In October, an Australian mining company Anson Resources announced its intent to fast track uranium exploration north of Moab.

Editor’s note, March 5, 2024: This article has been updated to clarify that Atomic Minerals is permitted to drill 2 wells at Harts Point.

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