Permanent Ban on Uranium Mining near Grand Canyon Draws Mixed Reaction

GRAND CANYON – Rep. Raúl Grijalva’s bill enacting a permanent ban on uranium mining drew praise this week from Havasupai leaders and criticism from the mining industry, as well as from a Republican member of Arizona’s congressional delegation.

“Havasupai means people of the blue green water, and we have been living here for over thousands of years,” Havasupai Tribal Council Member Claudius Putesoy said.

Hundreds of Havasupai live at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. They want to protect the future of their tribe and the sacred water.

Havasupai Tribal Council Member Claudius Putesoy says contaminated water affects his day to day life. “I’m a rancher and I hike a lot of cattle up here and it affects most of the water down there in Supai.” (Photo by Lillian Donahue / Cronkite News)

Matthew Putesoy, the vice chairman of the Havasupai Tribe said native communities in northern Arizona have expressed their concerns for decades over uranium mining near their ancestral lands.

“We have a sacred duty to protect the land and the Grand Canyon from further desecration,” he said.

Grijalva, the Democratic chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, introduced the Grand Canyon Centennial Protection Act on Tuesday, the 100th anniversary of Grand Canyon National Park. The legislation would bar more than 1 million acres of land around the canyon from uranium mining.

The Arizona Mining Association was quick to condemn the bill, arguing that the call for a permanent ban is misleading and undermines the domestic supply of clean fuel sources.

“This is a disingenuous attack on the public’s desire for clean energy, a healthy economy without reliance on questionable imports of these critical materials, environmental stewardship and land use autonomy,” Steve Trussell, the association’s executive director, said in a statement sent to Cronkite News.

Uranium is one of 35 mineral commodities deemed critical to the security and economic prosperity of the United States, according to the Department of the Interior. Uranium is abundant in and around the canyon.

Arizona Rep. Raúl Grijalva, a Democrat, spoke about challenges he expects to face with his proposed ban on uranium mining. “The mining industry is not going to go quietly in the night,” Grijalva said. “I think the majesty of the Grand Canyon can overwhelm that and that’s why we’re confident.” (Photo by Lillian Donahue / Cronkite News)

Currently, a moratorium set by the Obama administration in 2012 prohibits new mining claims in the area till 2032, but Grijalva said he wants to make that ban permanent.

“When you deal with this issue purely in academic terms and say, ‘Well, it’s just a little bit of mining, it’s just a little bit of uranium mining, what can that affect?’” Grijalva said. “Well, we have a litany , a history of that affect and it’s been negative”

The history of uranium mining in the area has left a mixed legacy. Multiple inactive mines line Grand Canyon National Park. The government has investigated high radiation levels and cleaned up contamination from the century-old Orphan Mine, which is near Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim.

The Canyon Mine, 6 miles south of the rim, which is still considered active, was exempt from the 2012 moratorium. The mine’s parent company, Energy Fuels, had to remove more than 1 million gallons of contaminated water from the mine site when it flooded in 2017.

The Grand Canyon Trust, a nonprofit environmental group, argues that tourism is more valuable to the local economy than mineral extraction.

“Uranium mining threatens these economic drivers while possessing little capacity to support the regional economy,” it said in a recent report.

“Facts are that the risks associated with uranium mining dramatically outweigh the benefits to this region or to this nation,” said Ethan Aumack, the trust’s executive director.

– Video by Lillian Donahue

The National Park Service reported that the more than 6 million visitors to the Grand Canyon National Park in 2017 supported 9,423 jobs and had a cumulative benefit of $938 million to the local economy.

Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., released a statement opposing the bill.

“Rep. Grijalva is pursuing his misguided quest to permanently lockup more than a million acres in Northern Arizona, harm education, kill jobs, infringe on private property rights and undermine American energy security,” Gosar said.

During his visit to the Grand Canyon on Saturday, Grijalva said he expects pushback on the initiative, but he has a message for his colleagues on Capitol Hill.

“To think of the Grand Canyon not in terms of a piece of federal land that they should open up as a commodity for drilling, for mining or for extraction,” Grijalva said. “They should think of it as a treasure that they need to comfort and take care of.”

Scientists Downplay Radiation Threat from Uranium Ore Stored at Grand Canyon

GRAND CANYON – Grand Canyon National Park’s safety, health and wellness manager caused a stir this week when he reported that three buckets of uranium ore stored in the park’s museum collections building had exposed visitors and staff to radiation for years.

Scientists, however, say unprocessed ore poses little danger unless exposed at very close range for long periods of time.

The buckets of uranium ore, along with samples of many other minerals found at the Grand Canyon, have been stored in the collections building, which visitors can tour by appointment, for two decades. Discovered last summer, the ore was removed from the building and dumped at “the site of its origin,” according to the safety manager’s report.

Uranium at the park was heavily mined during the Cold War. Grand Canyon’s former science director, Martha Hahn, said it’s everywhere. When she lived at the park, she had to move because inspectors found it in her house.

“To say that it was sitting out there and children and employees and everyone is in danger and nobody knew about it seems a little far-fetched to me because there were plenty of safety inspections done in the past,” Hahn said.

The park has spent millions of dollars cleaning up the Orphan Mine, which is 2 miles northwest of Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim. The topsoil has been removed, and the milling site has been fenced off.

The Orphan Mine, which opened on the South Rim in 1906, is 2 miles from Grand Canyon Village. It may be where workers last summer dumped three buckets of uranium ore that had been discovered in the park’s museum collections building. (Photo courtesy National Park Service)

As for the buckets of ore, Grand Canyon senior advisor Jan Balsom said the park is coordinating an independent inspection with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Arizona Department of Health Services and other agencies.

“I don’t want to sound cavalier about it at all because we’re really concerned about risks of uranium in the environment and in our water supplies across the board, which is why we’re hoping for a permanent withdrawal from mining in the area,” Balsam said. “The couple buckets of samples of unprocessed rock aren’t the same sort of threat in my mind. They’re different. And we’re addressing it again. This’ll be the third or fourth team that’s come in in the last six months.”

One thing they plan to find out in the inspection is where the buckets of ore were dumped last summer. “Site of its origin” could mean the Orphan Mine, which opened in 1906.