SIDEBAR: The Story of Orphan Uranium Mine
Grand Canyon National Park, Ariz. — Surrounded by a chain-link fence posted with signs warning of dangerous radiation levels, the abandoned Orphan uranium mine sits on the Grand Canyon’s south rim, three miles from the park’s famous El Tovar Hotel. Nearly 40 years after one of America’s top-producing uranium mines was closed down, it is still leaching radioactive waste into a creek that feeds the Colorado River.
The two major defense contractors responsible for the site, whose lobbyists have close ties to Arizona Sen. John McCain, are refusing to cooperate with the National Park Service to clean up the Orphan Mine Superfund site.
The cash-strapped park service is now being forced to pay for the mine clean up, which could cost taxpayers more than $15 million. A park official said they would try to recover costs from the defense contractors later. “We can’t wait,” said Martha Hahn, the park’s chief of science and resource management. “We need to get this cleaned up.”
McCain, representatives of the defense contractors, General Atomics and DRS Technologies, and key lobbyists including former New York Sen. Alfonse D’Amato and Stephen Ansley, husband of the former staff director for the Senate Armed Services Committee, all did not return repeated telephone calls and email messages seeking comment on the Orphan Mine and the collapse in negotiations with the National Park Service over cleaning up the site.
McCain, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, has also declined to comment on whether the defense contractors’ lobbyists have discussed the Orphan Mine Superfund site with him or his staff. D’Amato gave McCain’s presidential campaign $2,300 in March for the primaries and hosted a dinner in New York in May that raised about $1 million for McCain’s campaign.
Shawn Mulligan, National Park Service senior environmental program adviser, said “negotiations have broken down” with Tech-Sym and Cotter Corp., subdivisions of DRS Technologies and General Atomics, over paying for an engineering evaluation to clean up the site’s surface area. Mulligan said the park service will pay for the initial studies, estimated at between $1 million and $2 million.
Once a clean up plan is designed, Mulligan said the park service would ask the defense contractors to cover the work. If the companies refuse, Mulligan said the government could go ahead with the remediation, and file a lawsuit to collect damages. The cost for remediation of the Orphan Mine’s surface area is estimated at $15 million. This would be the first clean-up phase.
The cost to deal with contamination inside the underground mine and in a nearby creek is unknown. The park service has posted signs on Horn Creek, warning the public not to drink, due to potentially hazardous levels of radioisotopes. The base of the mining area is also the headwater for Horn Creek.
Roger Clark, air and water director for The Grand Canyon Trust, a Flagstaff, Ariz. environmental group, said the environmental assessment should also include the underground portion of the mine and any pollution draining into Horn Creek. "The department of defense contractors should pony up and pay for the assessment. And it should not just be on the surface," Clark said. "It ought to look at the overall depth of the problem."
D’Amato’s firm, Park Strategies Washington Group, is one of a 20 private lobbying firms for General Atomics, a privately-held, San Diego-based defense contractor that manufactures the Predator unmanned aircraft. General Atomics in 2000 purchased Cotter Corp., a Colorado uranium mining and milling company that the park service says is one of the two parties responsible for the Orphan Mine.
Superfund law allows the federal government to impose liability for the entire cost of cleanup of contaminated sites on any of the current or former owners or operators of the site. Cotter Corp. operated the mine from 1967 to 1969, when it was closed.
Cotter attorney John L. Watson declined to comment. Park Strategies and General Atomics did not respond to requests for interviews. General Atomics received $727 million in defense contracts in 2006 and is among the Top 100 defense contractors in the country.
The park service has also identified DRS Technologies, Inc. of Parsippany, N.J., as the other responsible party.DRS bought Integrated Defense Technologies along with its subsidiary,Tech-Sym Corp., in 2004. Tech Sym operated the mine between 1956 and 1967. The park service first contacted Tech-Sym about contamination at the Orphan Mine in 2000.
DRS Technologies gets more than 90 percent of its revenue from Defense Dept. contracts and has a federal contract backlog worth $3 billion. DRS Technologies was sold in May to Italian defense contractor Finmeccanica SpA for $5.2 billion, pending government approval. DRS Technologies did not respond to a request for an interview.
Like General Atomics, much of DRS Technologies’ business comes before the Senate Armed Services Committee, where McCain is the ranking member. During part of McCain’s tenure as chairman, DRS Technologies had a cozy relationship with the committee.
Ansley represented DRS Technologies as a staff lobbyist between 2001 and 2007. Ansley’s wife, Judith Ansley, was staff director for the Armed Services Committee between 2002 and 2005, when McCain was chairman. Stephen Ansley did not return a call requesting an interview. Judith Ansley is now deputy assistant to the president and deputy national security adviser for regional affairs. Stephen Ansley left DRS Technologies in 2007 but continued as an unpaid private lobbyist last year.
DRS Technologies grew rapidly during the period the Ansleys were both lobbying and working for the government. DRS Technologies’ annual revenue jumped from $391 million in 2000 to $3.3 billion for the fiscal year ending Mar. 31, 2008.