How the Grand Canyon could be the next target for uranium mining
The Trump administration’s rhetoric ignores market realities while endangering tribes and the Colorado River
This is the first installment of the Center for Western Priorities’ “Postcards from the West” blog series, featuring local, place-based stories of public lands in the West.
The Grand Canyon is many things to many people — one of the seven wonders of the natural world, the sacred homeland of Native American tribes, and a vacation destination for millions. For the Trump administration, it’s a source of uranium, a radioactive mineral with a lingering legacy in the American Southwest. Even though deposits within the region are unimpressive, the Trump administration has taken steps to open up the doorstep of the Grand Canyon to uranium mining.
After years of depressed market prices and low demand, uranium mining companies are pushing for a comeback. And in the Trump administration, they’ve found an eager partner. A recent executive order from the president instructed Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to prioritize the extraction of “critical minerals” — and the U.S. Forest Service has recommended lifting a mining moratorium at the gateway to the Grand Canyon.
To understand the implications of new uranium mining, it’s helpful to take a look at the region’s past. The “uranium rush” of the 1950s scoured the Four Corners, especially the Navajo Nation, with booms opening mines by the hundreds and busts leaving them idle. Today, abandoned uranium mines have left a toxic trail, with the burden of cleanup often falling on taxpayers instead of mining companies. Despite attempts at remediation, today 600,000 Native Americans across the Western United States live within six miles of an abandoned hardrock mine.
“The risks are very clearly borne by those who live here,” said Coconino County Supervisor Art Babbott in a documentary short, Too Precious to Mine. The “here” he’s talking about is the Greater Grand Canyon, where uranium companies have staked thousands of mining claims and are waiting to develop mines until the price is right.
In 2012, then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar put a 20-year moratorium on new mining claims across one million acres of public lands in the region. The reason: to study the complexities of uranium mining’s effects on the Grand Canyon. “The moratorium on uranium mining was really important to a broad coalition of people from very different backgrounds — rural, tribal, indigenous, sportsmen — who came together to understand that this is in the best interest of this region,” said Babbott.
While new mining claims were halted, a handful of “valid and existing” claims were grandfathered in, most notably the Canyon Mine, owned by Energy Fuels Resources. The Canyon Mine is located six miles from the South Rim, on a sacred site in the emergence story of the Havasupai people.
“The whole canyon is our home, and its waters are our lifeblood,” explains Havasupai Tribal Council member Carletta Tilousi. The Canyon Mine is also right above Redwall-Muav aquifer, the origin of the tribe’s sole source of water and the force behind the iconic blue-green Havasu Falls.
“The moratorium was a small victory for the tribe,” said Tilousi. “The United States finally heard our voice and finally decided to protect federal lands from mining. But now it’s being challenged by mining corporations.” It’s clear these mining companies are receiving a helping hand from President Trump, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, and Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue.
“The United States finally heard our voice and finally decided to protect federal lands from mining. But now it’s being challenged by mining corporations.”
— Carletta Tilousi, Havasupai Tribal Council member
Energy Fuels Resources, which has made news recently for aggressively lobbying Interior Secretary Zinke to eviscerate Bears Ears National Monument in southern Utah and open it to new mining claims, testified to Congress against the Greater Grand Canyon moratorium.
President Trump heeded Energy Fuels’ request when he attempted to shrink Bears Ears last December, and also when he signed a sweeping executive order touting “energy independence.” Further, under President Trump’s directive, the Department of Agriculture (which houses the U.S. Forest Service), issued a report recommending the administration lift the moratorium. In December, however, the Obama administration’s ban, as well as Canyon Mine’s valid existing rights to mine, were upheld in court.
During a speech titled “A Vision for American Energy Dominance” at the Heritage Foundation in September, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke claimed, “Under Trump, energy mined and produced by American hands will make America great again.” But the administration’s rhetoric ignores the reality: the United States has less than two percent of known global reserves of uranium, and the reserves we do have are low grade. There is no scenario in which the United States could become self-sufficient — much less “energy dominant” — in uranium.
There is no scenario in which the United States could become self-sufficient — much less “energy dominant” — in uranium.
According to Amber Reimondo, Energy Director for the Grand Canyon Trust, “at the end of 2016, the Energy Information Administration estimated that the entire United States uranium reserves… are something like 60 million pounds of uranium oxide.” As Reimondo explained on the Center for Western Priorities’ Go West, Young Podcast, that amount of uranium “is basically enough to fulfill the United State’s nuclear reactor needs for approximately 14 months.”
In a recent article, the Phoenix New Times interviewed more than a dozen experts who came to similar conclusions about uranium. None claimed that mining the Grand Canyon was a matter of national security. They also said it wasn’t a viable or promising economic move for the area.
Then there’s the matter of contamination. Companies like Energy Fuels say that technology has improved, but “the only way we know if companies’ practices are any safer is by trial and error,” said Reimondo. “And do we really want the Grand Canyon, and the people who rely on the Grand Canyon, to be the guinea pig for that?”
Adding to the uncertainty, scientists point out that the Grand Canyon’s groundwater system is incredibly complex and interconnected. And the U.S. Geological Survey is still waiting for Congress to approve the research funds needed to answer the questions posed at the time of the moratorium. Puncturing any of the many geologic layers can create a conduit for contamination that may not be detected for weeks — or decades.
Energy Fuels Resources learned this first-hand last winter when it hit groundwater during the construction of their Canyon Mine. Contaminated water filled the partially-built mine shaft, overflowing into a side containment pond. Samples from the site tested at 130 parts per billion of uranium, far surpassing the levels considered unsafe to drink by the EPA. Energy Fuels’ solution: to spray the contaminated water into the air. “They were just blowing water into the air,” said Roger Clark of the Grand Canyon Trust.
The incident at Canyon Mine exemplifies two of the biggest challenges with uranium contamination: it’s difficult to track and expensive to fix. The moment uranium is exposed to oxygen — in wind, or water — it becomes a radioactive free-agent with a half-life set to last millions of years. And it’s difficult to conceive of the magnitude of “fixing” the Grand Canyon after uranium contamination.
Once Energy Fuels decides to start production on Canyon Mine, it will haul its yield to the White Mesa Mill in Blanding, Utah. And if an accident happens along the way, the effects would be difficult to predict. Clark puts it bluntly, “It’s kind of like one of these black swan events, like they often refer to with Deepwater Horizon: a low likelihood of an accident, but the high probability that if an accident occurs you’re screwed.”