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Exposure pathways and biological receptors: baseline data for the canyon uranium mine, Coconino County, Arizona

December 1, 2014

Recent restrictions on uranium mining within the Grand Canyon watershed have drawn attention to scientific data gaps in evaluating the possible effects of ore extraction to human populations as well as wildlife communities in the area. Tissue contaminant concentrations, one of the most basic data requirements to determine exposure, are not available for biota from any historical or active uranium mines in the region. The Canyon Uranium Mine is under development, providing a unique opportunity to characterize concentrations of uranium and other trace elements, as well as radiation levels in biota, found in the vicinity of the mine before ore extraction begins. Our study objectives were to identify contaminants of potential concern and critical contaminant exposure pathways for ecological receptors; conduct biological surveys to understand the local food web and refine the list of target species (ecological receptors) for contaminant analysis; and collect target species for contaminant analysis prior to the initiation of active mining. Contaminants of potential concern were identified as arsenic, cadmium, chromium, copper, lead, mercury, nickel, selenium, thallium, uranium, and zinc for chemical toxicity and uranium and associated radionuclides for radiation. The conceptual exposure model identified ingestion, inhalation, absorption, and dietary transfer (bioaccumulation or bioconcentration) as critical contaminant exposure pathways. The biological survey of plants, invertebrates, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and small mammals is the first to document and provide ecological information on .200 species in and around the mine site; this study also provides critical baseline information about the local food web. Most of the species documented at the mine are common to ponderosa pine Pinus ponderosa and pinyon–juniper Pinus–Juniperus spp. forests in northern Arizona and are not considered to have special conservation status by state or federal agencies; exceptions are the locally endemic Tusayan flameflower Phemeranthus validulus, the long-legged bat Myotis volans, and the Arizona bat Myotis occultus. The most common vertebrate species identified at the mine site included the Mexican spadefoot toad Spea multiplicata, plateau fence lizard Sceloporus tristichus, violetgreen swallow Tachycineta thalassina, pygmy nuthatch Sitta pygmaea, purple martin Progne subis, western bluebird Sialia mexicana, deermouse Peromyscus maniculatus, valley pocket gopher Thomomys bottae, cliff chipmunk Tamias dorsalis, black-tailed jackrabbit Lepus californicus, mule deer Odocoileus hemionus, and elk Cervus canadensis. A limited number of the most common species were collected for contaminant analysis to establish baseline contaminant and radiological concentrations prior to ore extraction. These empirical baseline data will help validate contaminant exposure pathways and potential threats from contaminant exposures to ecological receptors. Resource managers will also be able to use these data to determine the extent to which local species are exposed to chemical and radiation contamination once the mine is operational and producing ore. More broadly, these data could inform resource management decisions on mitigating chemical and radiation exposure of biota at high-grade uranium breccia pipes throughout the Grand Canyon watershed.

Publication Year 2014
Title Exposure pathways and biological receptors: baseline data for the canyon uranium mine, Coconino County, Arizona
DOI 10.3996/052014-JFWM-039
Authors Jo Ellen Hinck, Greg L. Linder, Abigail J. Darrah, Charles A. Drost, Michael C. Duniway, Matthew J. Johnson, Francisca M. Méndez-Harclerode, Erika M. Nowak, Ernest W. Valdez, Charles van Riper, S.W. Wolff
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Journal of Fish and Wildlife Management
Index ID 70136369
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Columbia Environmental Research Center; Contaminant Biology Program