Visited by 5 million people each year, the Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona remains one of America’s most iconic destinations valued for its natural beauty. Established as a U.S. national park in 1919, most would consider the area an unlikely spot for uranium mining.
But just six miles beyond the picturesque areas frequented by tourists is a battleground where Native tribes and environmental organizations have fought to permanently ban mining, which is seen by many as harmful to the environment and human health.
In a landmark January 2012 decision, former Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar imposed a 20-year ban on any new uranium extraction and hardrock mining on more than 1 million acres around the Grand Canyon. The prohibition allowed a small number of existing mines to continue operating but was hailed as a major victory for those opposed to uranium extraction.
Mining companies are backed by some Republican lawmakers who claim that uranium development is crucial for developing U.S. energy resources and creating jobs. Republican members of Arizona’s congressional delegation criticized bans imposed by Salazar in 2009, arguing that a permanent ban on new mining claims would eliminate hundreds of jobs and end decades of resource development. Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and other GOP lawmakers backed legislation to prevent Salazar from moving forward with the 20-year ban.
Advocates of the mining ban won a key battle in March, when a federal judge denied a Canadian mining company’s motion to overturn Salazar’s decision on constitutional grounds.
Despite the ban, the U.S. Forest Service recently gave Colorado-based Energy Fuels Resources, a subsidiary of Toronto-based Energy Fuels Inc., permission to dig uranium six miles from the south rim of the Grand Canyon. The Obama administration and the Forest Service claim that Salazar’s ban does not apply to Energy Fuels because their rights have been “grandfathered in.”
The Havasupai tribe, the Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity, and the Grand Canyon Trust have sued to stop the mine, continuing a battle that dates back decades.
“They just started reoperating a few months ago and we’ve filed a motion for a preliminary injunction. The briefing is complete and we are just waiting to hear if the judge wants to have a hearing,” said Marc Fink, an attorney representing the Center for Biological Diversity, in an interview with Mint Press News.
National Geographic contributor Kenneth Brower believes the decision could set a dangerous precedent, as there are now “more than 3,000 similar claims in the area” Salazar originally declared protected. The history of nearby Native tribes indicates that past mining operations could have caused an acute increase in cancer rates, according to Judy Pasternak, a Los Angeles Times reporter, citing data from the Indian Health Service.
In the 1950s and 1960s, during the peak of uranium mining, there were 1,000 mines scattered throughout Navajo nation. From 1944 to 1986, 3.9 million tons of uranium ore were removed from the mountains and plains.
Long after most of the mines were abandoned, the Navajo people continued to suffer health problems because of contaminated drinking water and polluted air containing increased levels of radon, a carcinogenic material, Pasternak wrote in a 2006 story about the problem.
“The cancer death rate on the reservation — historically much lower than that of the general U.S. population — doubled from the early 1970s to the late 1990s, according to Indian Health Service data. The overall U.S. cancer death rate declined slightly over the same period,” she reported.
The Navajo live outside the the current contested area, but groundwater remains an important issue for those suing to prevent mining.
“The main thing we are concerned about is the groundwater contamination. There is already at least one stream where they have told people not to drink from. We’re basically trying to get the Forest Service to update (the) environmental analysis before they let the mining continue,” Fink said.
The position is also supported by the Sierra Club, which has opposed mining in the area and is one of the groups involved in the ongoing case.
“We have always supported no uranium mines in the area. That has been the position of the Havasupai tribe for as long as it has been proposed. So we are supportive of that. Their livelihood, their culture is totally dependent upon having clean water. If it is contaminated, it will have a serious impact on them,” said Sandy Bahr, chapter director for Sierra Club Arizona, in an interview with Mint Press News.
The mine was approved in 1986 based upon data collected in the early 1980s. Environmental groups hope that new data will be collected before any new mining operations are allowed to continue.
“The Forest Service can and should be asking for a better analysis. They appear to be working more for the mining industry than the American people when it comes to this issue. The bottom line is the Forest Service will try to facilitate the mining activities,” Bahr said.
The Havasupai tribe is also concerned that sacred property near the site could be disturbed because of the mining.
“In this particular case, the main concern of the tribe we are working with is a religious shrine. In 2010, the whole area was designated a traditional cultural property. This is about impacts to their sacred area,” Fink said.
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