Bill Tackles Uranium Mining’s Threat to Grand Canyon
Permanent mining ban will protect water, wildlife, communities
In February there was a national outcry over media reports that visitors to Grand Canyon National Park may have been exposed to radiation from three buckets of rock samples ― some containing uranium ore ― in a rarely used storage facility on the South Rim.
Turns out, park visitors were not in danger.
But uranium mining’s real threat has been there for most of the park’s 100-year history, and today that threat is greater than ever.
That’s why U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva’s Grand Canyon Centennial Protection Act needs to become law. It would permanently protect the region, its people, waters and wildlife by prohibiting new uranium mining on 1 million acres around the Grand Canyon.
It’s a no brainer. Uranium mining next to one of the world’s natural wonders and the West’s largest watershed has never made sense. Anyone who’s visited the park would be appalled at the idea, but most folks just don’t know.
While the kerfuffle over three buckets of uranium ore made national news, most visitors have no idea that a uranium mine operated just west of Grand Canyon Village in the 1950s. They’re unaware that the water just below the rim is radioactive and that uranium mines still operate today just outside the park boundaries.
The park’s visitors also may not know that the entire Grand Canyon region is still afflicted by uranium mining’s deadly pollution. Hundreds of old mines on the Navajo Nation still pollute air, water, soil and communities. Smartly, the Navajo Nation banned new uranium mining years ago.
Just south of the park boundary, the Canyon Mine continues to flood and migratory birds bathe and feed in the contaminated mine water that’s pumped to the surface. Nobody knows for sure if that contamination is polluting deep aquifers that feed Grand Canyon’s springs.
Grijalva, local tribes and conservation groups like the Center for Biological Diversity, where I work, have spent more than a decade — and the Havasupai several decades — fighting the mining industry’s efforts to plunder this spectacular place and its precious water.
In 2012 we got a big boost from then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in the form of a 20-year mining ban, protecting the streams and aquifers that feed the Colorado River and the Grand Canyon from toxic uranium-mining pollution and water depletion.
Without the mining ban, the Interior Department estimated that dozens of new uranium mines and exploration projects would be developed. These projects would have bulldozed thousands of acres of land, using hundreds of millions gallons of water that feeds the region’s iconic falls, springs and streams.
Predictably, the mining industry fought back with lawsuits and intensive lobbying. They lost in the courts, repeatedly, but are still pushing hard to convince elected officials that they must mine uranium in lands and waters that are sacred to native nations and provide important wildlife habitat.
It’s appalling, but what’s even worse is that some of Arizona’s own congressional representatives, the loudest being Rep. Paul Gosar, are backing the mining industry.
That’s despite the fact that the Grand Canyon region supports 9,000 jobs and contributes nearly $1 billion a year to local economies.
Gosar’s pro-mining stance ignores the region’s cultural significance to 11 Native American tribes.
And it shrugs off the incredible biodiversity of the Grand Canyon region, including more than 2,000 plants and animals ― some of them threatened or endangered, and some found nowhere else on the planet including mountain lions, goshawks, condors, spotted owls and a myriad of migratory birds.
And it’s despite the fact that the vast majority of Arizonans, across the political spectrum, want this region protected and the mining ban to remain in place.
So what possible reason could Gosar and other lawmakers have to oppose Grijalva’s common-sense legislation?
Gosar has introduced or co-sponsored dozens of bills aimed at giving away public lands. He’s accepted nearly $350,000 in campaign contributions from the energy and natural resources industry — namely oil, gas, mining and timber.
Keep that in mind as Gosar trots out industry talking points and accuses Grijalva of a “land grab” or “locking up” federal land. Gosar is simply doing the mining industry’s bidding.
The fact is that the Grand Canyon needs protection from the mining industry and its boosters, and Grijalva’s bill is the way to do it. What’s also needed is a companion bill in the Senate and the president’s signature.
This won’t be easy in a Trump administration. That’s why members of Congress need to hear from their constituents.
If people were troubled by buckets of rocks in an old storage facility, imagine what could happen if they understood the real threat to the Grand Canyon. The region might finally get the protection it so richly deserves.