The industry says the Moab case is an outdated blight from the distant past.
"What gets my ire up is when we get compared to stuff that happened in the 60s. There is no argument from us now about being careful... with an eye to preserving the environment," said Peter Farmer, CEO of Denison Mines, a Canadian company that operates seven U.S. mines as well as the nation's only operating uranium mill in Blanding, Utah.
Denison recently spent more than $5 million to triple-line a waste pit and outfit it with leak detection sensors. It's cheaper to pay up front, Farmer says, than to clean up later.
Roger Haskins, a specialist in mining law at the BLM, agrees that concerns over mining are overblown. He says landmark environmental regulations in the 1970s prepared the industry for the 21st century. While it's still easy to stake a mining claim, projects must now undergo extensive environmental review before they can be turned into mines.
"Whatever happens out there is thoroughly manageable in today's regulatory environment," Haskins said.
Scientists say some degree of pollution is inevitable, because mining sometimes uses toxic chemicals like cyanide. It also exposes naturally toxic metals that would otherwise remain deep underground.
Drilling for uranium creates pathways where raw, radioactive material can migrate into underground aquifers that drain into the river. Surface water can seep into the drill holes and mine shafts, picking up traces of uranium and then percolating into underground water sources. The milling process itself creates six pounds of radioactive and toxic waste -- including ammonia, arsenic, lead and mercury -- for every ounce of uranium produced.
"There has to be some impact to downstream water. Whether or not we can measure -- that is the question," said David Naftz, a hydrologist at the U.S. Geological Survey in Salt Lake City who studies uranium mining.
Naftz has documented dangerous levels of uranium near waste dumps at more than 50 separate test sites in Utah. While much of the mining happens in high, dry places where contaminants don't easily seep into surface water, he says periodic storms can still wash them into the river.
"What we've done is kind of upset the geochemical equilibriums in these basins by taking these ores and exposing them to conditions on the surface," he said. "The question is, how long is it going to take to transport them down to water systems?"
Pollution problems with gold, copper and other mines also challenge the assertion that technology and better regulation have eliminated the environmental risks.
One study compared the EPA's environmental impact statements for 25 sites to what really happened after mining took place. Water at three quarters of the mines was found to be contaminated, even though the mines used technology and techniques that the EPA had said would keep the environment clean, according to the research done for Earthworks by Jim Kuipers, an environmental engineer in Butte, Mont. and Anne Maest of Buka Environmental in Boulder, Colo.
At least four large mines that operated as recently as the 1990s -- long after new regulatory standards were put in place -- have caused so much contamination that the EPA designated them as priority Superfund cleanup sites. One rendered a 20-mile stretch of a Colorado River tributary completely dead.
"Promises are made and promises are broken," said Roger Clark, who is director of the Grand Canyon Trust's air and energy program and has been monitoring the rise in mining claims near the Grand Canyon. "This is not something we can sit back and take industry's word for."
Clark, who explored the Colorado River as a Boy Scout and later as a river guide, already has seen signs of the park's decline. On a recent hike along the Grand Canyon's rim, he passed a stream whose water he drank freely as a boy. Now it's marked with a sign saying, "Drinking and bathing in these waters is not advisable." The Park Service posted the same warning along five other canyon streams that feed into the Colorado, because high concentrations of uranium have leached into the water, likely from old mines.