Grand Canyon National Park — one of the world’s most iconic landscapes, with countless turquoise waterfalls, temple-like buttes, and rare plant and animal life — faces an urgent threat on the hundredth anniversary of its establishment.
In June, the Trump administration rolled out a plan to expedite permits to mine our nation’s public lands for uranium, which is found in the Grand Canyon region, and for other minerals. The BLM is now reviewing existing withdrawals— such as the one currently in place to protect the Grand Canyon — with an eye towards lifting “barriers” to further mineral extraction on public lands.
The story of the current fight over the future of the Grand Canyon starts over a decade ago. In response to a 2007–2008 spike in uranium prices, more than 10,000 mining claims were staked on public lands surrounding Grand Canyon National Park. In order to combat the looming threat to the landscape, Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) introduced the Grand Canyon Watersheds Protection Act of 2008 (H.R. 5583) to withdraw approximately 1 million acres outside the Park from mineral development. This legislative action prompted the Secretary of the Interior to launch an environmental analysis of uranium mining in the area.
In 2012, after considering almost 300,000 public comments and numerous scientific studies of the harmful environmental impacts of uranium mining, then Interior Secretary Ken Salazar issued a 20-year moratorium on new mining claims on approximately 1 million acres of federal land surrounding Grand Canyon National Park. This decision, known as the Northern Arizona Mineral Withdrawal, is still in effect, providing important but temporary protections to the Grand Canyon watershed and the communities whose livelihoods depend upon it. Chair Grijalva introduced legislation to permanently stop new mining claims.
The Trump administration is “reviewing” this moratorium now, and the fate of those protections hangs in the balance. Since taking office, the Trump administration has aggressively been checking items off the mining industry’s wish list at the expense of local communities.
House Democrats have been fighting back. But protecting the Grand Canyon from the threat of mining is neither a new phenomenon nor a purely Democratic one. Since 1908, when Republican President Theodore Roosevelt first designated the Grand Canyon as a national monument, it has been protected by at least five major pieces of bipartisan legislation, championed by Republicans and Democrats alike. To ensure that all future generations have the opportunity to enjoy this “Natural Wonder of the World,” Chairman Grijalva introduced the Grand Canyon Centennial Protection Act (H.R. 1373), which would make the popular ban on new mining claims within the current withdrawal area permanent. On July 17, 2019, the Committee passed the Grand Canyon Centennial Protection Act — teeing up the bill for consideration by the full House of Representatives. On October 30, 2019, the bill passed the House.
This common-sense measure is supported by nearly two-thirds of Arizonans across the political spectrum. It enjoys endorsements from cities, counties, tribes, businesses, conservation groups, and many other stakeholders with a vested interest in the health of rural economies, communities, and ecosystems.
Given wide public support for the legislation, opponents have had to resort to false, blatantly misleading claims that that the bill regulates a host of non-mining activities on public lands, or that it applies to private or state property. These are nothing more than attempts to confuse the public. Similarly, attempts by the mining industry and their political allies to downplay the harms of uranium mining and invent a fictitious national security threat requiring large new uranium mining operations are an affront to the people, livelihoods, and watersheds the Grand Canyon supports. Here are the facts.
Uranium mining in the Grand Canyon region has harmed local communities and the surrounding environment. On the Navajo Nation, where more than 500 abandoned uranium mines still litter the landscape, 27 percent of residents recently tested positive for high levels of uranium and health officials have discovered that nearly 30 water sources contain unsafe uranium levels associated with mining. Despite mining industry assurances that technology and practices have improved, multiple incidents at mines near the Grand Canyon have shown the industry remains incapable of containing radioactive waste.
While examining the impacts of uranium mining in the area, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) found levels of uranium that exceeded drinking water limits at 15 springs and 5 wells near mining sites. At the Kanab North Mine, the soil contains an average uranium concentration more than 10 times higher than naturally occurring levels. This disproves the myth that mining operations that “remove naturally occurring uranium” would benefit water quality. At a time when government agencies are coping with the multi-million-dollar toxic legacy of hundreds of abandoned mines — many of which uranium mining companies failed to clean up — further contamination would be disastrous for the health of local residents and ecosystems.
Any new mines would pose a particularly grave threat to the Redwall-Muav aquifer and Havasu Creek, the sole water source for the Havasupai Tribe and for the area’s rare desert plants and wildlife. Less than two years ago, Canyon Mine operators pierced an aquifer after the mining company promised that operations would not disrupt groundwater. Every minute, 5 to 9 gallons of water leak into the mining shaft, which is situated right above Supai Village. Fractures, faults, sinkholes, and breccia pipes throughout the rim of the Grand Canyon provide multiple avenues for contaminated water to seep down into groundwater supplies. In an attempt to keep the onsite storage pond from overflowing, operators at Canyon Mine have resorted to misting uranium-contaminated water into the air — spraying the surrounding environment with water that nobody would want on their clothes, let alone in their drinking water.
On October 2, 2019, Chair Grijalva hosted a forum with Navajo uranium miners in Northern Arizona to learn more about the impacts that uranium mining has had on the Navajo Nation. At the forum, former miners spoke of the serious illnesses among miners and community members, as well as the need for additional cleanup at mining areas.
Mining in the Grand Canyon region threatens more than local tribal health. The seeps and springs within the mineral withdrawal area feed the Colorado River, which provides water to nearly 40 million Americans and irrigates 1.8 million acres of land used to grow the nation’s crops and livestock. The threat of uranium contamination has raised significant concern among the agencies responsible for providing water to major cities downstream, leading water managers from Phoenix to Las Vegas to publicly oppose attempts to expand uranium mining in the Grand Canyon region.
To prevent new mining interests from further degrading the landscape and threatening local communities, the Grand Canyon Centennial Protection Act would ban new mining claims on approximately 1 million acres around Grand Canyon National Park. By permanently withdrawing the moratorium area from new mineral claims, Chair Grijalva’s proposal will protect many of Northern Arizona’s most sacred Native American sites, ecologically sensitive areas, and the Colorado River watershed.
Tourism associated with the Grand Canyon supports the livelihoods of thousands of Americans. Grand Canyon National Park contributes $938 million in revenue to gateway communities each year and directly supports 7,222 jobs. In contrast, BLM estimated that mining activity, should the Northern Arizona Mineral Withdrawal be canceled, would directly support only 295 jobs. Recreation and tourism are more powerful economic drivers in the region than mining, especially given that any financial benefits from uranium mining would last 20 years at most.
Residents recognize that the economic and health risks associated with uranium mining far outweigh any potential benefits. In a recent bipartisan poll, 78 percent of Arizonans surveyed indicated that recreation and tourism are more important to the future of the state’s economy than mining. Moreover, the bulk of short-lived mining profits will go into foreign pockets. Of the approximately 830 active mining claims in the moratorium area, 93 percent are held by subsidiaries of Canadian or British companies.
Protecting the world-renowned Grand Canyon landscape is critical to maintaining a healthy tourism and recreation economy in the region. Without a mining ban, the area would be open to hundreds of exploration projects, dozens of miles of roads and powerlines, and hundreds of thousands of ore haul trips — all of which would degrade the sacred and wild character that draws millions of outdoor enthusiasts and visitors to this place.
The Coconino County Board of Supervisors, the Flagstaff City Council, the Tusayan Town Council, and the Hualapai Tribal Council have all passed resolutions “opppos[ing] uranium development on lands in the proximity of Grand Canyon National Park and its watersheds” and supporting a mineral withdrawal. The mayor of Flagstaff even testified before Congress in support of H.R. 1373, citing concerns about the adverse impacts of uranium mining on the city’s tourism industry, water supplies, and public health.
Uranium mining harms not only environmental health, but also important cultural resources. The area protected by the current mineral withdrawal is home to thousands of sites with archaeological and natural features that hold deep spiritual significance for the region’s 11 federally recognized Native American tribes. For instance, BLM warned that mining activity could disrupt traditional ceremonies at Red Butte, a spiritual site for the Havasupai, Navajo, Hopi, and other tribes. In a hearing before the Committee on H.R. 1373, a member of the Havasupai Tribal Council explained that her tribe now fears going to Red Butte for pilgrimages and prayers, feeling they risk being exposed to radiation when they perform ceremonial duties. As another representative of the tribe puts it: “Would you want an operating uranium mine near your church or synagogue?”
Water contamination would also undermine the Havasupai Tribe’s identity as “the People of the blue-green water,” a long-standing title referring to the flows that cascade down Havasu Creek and supply the tribe with water for drinking, agriculture, and ceremonial activities. To protect the sacred sites of their ancestors, the Havasupai Tribe, Hopi Tribe, Hualapai Tribe, Colorado River Indian Tribes, and the Navajo Nation have all passed resolutions or submitted written statements supporting a permanent ban on new mining claims near the Grand Canyon. Georgie Pongyesva, a member of the Hopi Tribe, described the significance of the Grand Canyon to his people:
This is a one-of-a-kind place. It provides spirituality, sustenance, and water. It is so important to protect it, and all these resources, because they’re not renewable.
Mining companies are asking us to sacrifice the well-being of tribes and local communities for the sake of exploiting natural resources and chasing short-term corporate profits. In a statement supporting H.R. 1373, Clark Tenakhongva, the Vice Chairman of the Hopi Tribe, highlighted how current hardrock mining laws — which, thanks to well-funded mining lobbyists, have remained largely unchanged since their enactment in 1872 — are used to “‘discover,’ ‘claim,’ and ‘take’ Native Americans’ lands.” The current application of these arcane laws disrespects “the beliefs and sacred ties that Native American people have with the Earth,” according to the Vice Chairman. It is high time to address the concerns of local communities and honor the cultural significance of these lands by permanently protecting them from the degradation uranium mining causes.
Uranium mining doesn’t just jeopardize people’s health. It threatens the Grand Canyon’s unique and sensitive ecosystems, especially wildlife habitats. Within the mining withdrawal area, the landscapes surrounding the springs play host to biodiversity 100–500 times greater than that of the surrounding landscape. These oases support dozens of threatened and endangered species — including the California condor, humpback chub, leopard frog, and Kaibab plains cactus — as well as iconic game species such as pronghorn and desert bighorn sheep.
Mining activities that diminish the quantity and quality of precious surface and groundwater supplies could result in the death of aquatic plants, amphibians, fish, and wildlife. Radioactive dust and soil could have lethal effects on species that burrow below ground, which is a common survival strategy for desert species. The possibility of birds, reptiles, and mammals directly inhaling or digesting radionuclides in their subterranean habitats is particularly concerning. Indeed, BLM cited these unacceptable impacts to the ecosystem’s exceptional biodiversity as one of the primary reasons for withdrawing the area from mineral development in 2012.
The notion that uranium mining is essential to national security is not realistic. The U.S. already has enough uranium to meet defense and energy needs for at least the next 40 years, according to the Department of Energy. Allegations of U.S. dependence on “unstable foreign adversaries” for uranium amount to little more than fear-mongering, given the fact that the majority of current imports come from strong U.S. allies like Canada and Australia.
Claiming that this fictional security issue makes it necessary to exploit the Grand Canyon watershed — of all places — is absurd. The amount of feasibly recoverable uranium within the withdrawal area equals less than 1 percent of total domestic reserves. It is simply not worth exploiting an ecologically and culturally rich landscape for the sake of accessing these mineral reserves. Uranium can be mined elsewhere in greater volumes, with greater efficiency, and for more profit to meet our national security and nuclear energy needs.
This legislation is purely a mineral withdrawal. It does not prohibit any of the other “multiple uses” traditionally associated with the lands within the withdrawal area. The many non-mineral activities (such as recreation, grazing, or forest management) that would otherwise lawfully take place would not be restricted. Contrary to the intentionally inflammatory, ill-informed rhetoric of some of the bill’s opponents in Congress, the legislation does not create a new wilderness area or national monument. The bill only extends an existing mining moratorium into the future to prevent further politicization of the Grand Canyon’s environmental security.
The mineral withdrawal only applies to the federal subsurface land, not to any mineral rights held by state or private entities. Mining companies and their allies falsely accuse this legislation of hurting school revenues generated by mineral development. The fact is that uranium mining on federal land generates little revenue because companies are not required to pay royalties on the hardrock minerals they extract from federal public lands. And as opponents know very well but fail to acknowledge, H.R. 1373 does not prevent the Arizona State Land Department from permitting development of state-owned mineral resources.
It is important to note that the mineral withdrawal would apply only to new mining claims. The legislation maintains valid existing mineral rights.
As Chair Grijalva remarked when he first introduced the bill:
The cause is the protection of the Grand Canyon.
Because it’s just.
And it’s life-affirming.
That’s why we are doing this.
The Grand Canyon Centennial Protection Act is pragmatic and straightforward. The fact that opponents have focused their objections on language that doesn’t appear in the bill suggests there’s little to criticize in this common-sense legislation. Ultimately, the Grand Canyon Centennial Protection Act provides critically urgent safeguards to preserve some of the region’s — and the country’s — most important natural, cultural, and economic resources. We’ll continue fighting to protect the Grand Canyon from anyone wishing to cause it harm.