“Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it.”
That’s what 26th U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt said upon visiting the Grand Canyon in 1903, enchanted and awestruck by the unparalleled natural beauty of the rolling red and orange landscapes stretching for miles like an intricately painted canvass.
But, America’s monumental canyon, rich in uranium deposits, has had a long, troubled history with mining expeditions that have not only pock marked the land but has affected human health in a devastating way, especially for Native American tribes that have called this sacred land home for centuries.
Mining in the region was banned in 2012 under Obama, but this year Energy Fuels Resources has gotten the green light to reopen its old Canyon Mine just six miles from the highly visited South Rim entrance.
And those drills are set to start digging in 2015.
The Grand Canyon Trust, Native American tribes and other conservation groups have filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Services (USFS) to get them to reconsider. Roger Clark, director at the Grand Canyon Trust, chatted with me about the history of uranium mining in the Grand Canyon and what could potentially happen if action isn’t taken to stop it from happening now.
C: How is uranium mining dangerous for the land and to human health?
R: Uranium mining began in the 1950s around the Grand Canyon and the Colorado Plateau and has left a deadly legacy with mine sites and mill sites that will take many centuries, if ever, to clean up. Once you expose uranium ore that’s embedded in the rock to the air, it becomes oxidized. In its oxidized form it’s extremely soluble in water. So rain, flood waters, any kind of opportunity for the ore to come into contact with the water, mobilizes it and puts it in the surface and ground water systems at levels that are harmful to human health. Also, when you bring [uranium ore] up and begin to pulverize it, dust is created that is immediately hazardous to the miners and people who live around mines. Many miners from the 1950s-1970s have suffered from cancer and death as a result of that exposure.
C: How are the Native tribes that live around the Grand Canyon affected?
R: The dust that remains from those exposed sites that have uranium ore still on the surface are blowing in the wind. The water that accumulates in depressions, particularly around the Navajo reservation that have ore still exposed is ingested by sheep, then the [Navajo] eat the sheep and it is another pathway for contamination and harm to human health. It’s a deadly legacy that the Navajo people in particular are living with that has no immediate or near term prospect of being taken care of, mitigated or resolved.
C: Uranium mining was huge for nuclear weapon testing after WWII and then demand and price dropped around 1990. Why is it in high demand again?
R: The global process for uranium drives it. The reason it dropped in the 1980s and 1990s was in part related to the fall of the Soviet Union; that combined with nuclear bans for nuclear weapons meant that weapons grade material was being reprocessed into a form that could be used to run nuclear power plants for generating electricity. So there was a drop in prices until 2006-2007 when some of those supplies became constrained and it brought the prices for uranium ore in its milled form from less than $10 lb to over $100 lb. At those prices, it was economical for uranium companies to open up old mine sites around the Grand Canyon, Utah and Colorado to begin processing again.
C: How was the USFS able to do get around the ban on uranium mining near the Grand Canyon in the first place?
R: The ban that was issued by Secretary Salazar in January 2012 specifically pertained to new claims that have yet to establish valid and existing rights. There were four mines that were open and not fully mined out or developed in the late 1980s that had already invested quite a bit of money in moving forward and of these mines it was determined that even though they hadn’t gone through validity testing, had already been “grandfathered” in. The forest service did go back and do a validity test based on historic data on the ore grade and on information on the size of the ore body and retrospectively, decided that Canyon Mine had valid rights not affected by the ban. It’s not that they didn’t get around it, with the Secretary’s order, mines without valid claims and rights are banned but it’s an establishment of prior validity. We are challenging that decision.
C: With the horrific and devastating outcomes of past mining on land and people, why would the USFS fight to push forward?
R: Mining companies assert there is zero risk of water and air contamination under “new mining techniques.” However, the mining techniques used today have changed very little. The only thing that has changed is the ventilation of the underground mine shafts to protect underground miners, but still, the issues of water contamination are not resolved. There is a low probability of contamination on most of the mines because they are so dry, but if you get a 100 year downpour flood event it does create an irreversible set of damages to ground water. Once it’s contaminated as it is around the Native American reservations, you just can’t reverse it. The agencies aren’t so much ignoring the health risks and environmental risks as directly as the mining companies, but they are following what they believe to be allowed under the 1872 mining law to minimize risk without saying “no” to mining.
What we are learning more and more is that risks from uranium mining are greater than what anyone ever suspected. For Havasupai people who lived down canyon from the Canyon Mine, a single flood event could carry radioactive materials into their water shed and permanently contaminate their sole source of water.
Mining companies assert that there is no risk; the agencies are accepting industry assessments without doing any monitoring on the ground water before or after these mines are allowed to go forward. The evidence of impact remains small, but where we do have evidence where there has been sampling done after mining there is 100 % correlation between mining and unhealthy contamination levels on the ground and in the water so I think we are at a turning point with the agency and hope they change their stance sooner than later.
C: What do the Grand Canyon Land Trust, Native American tribes and other involved groups hope to accomplish by suing the USFS?
R: We hope to get the agency to revisit and redo the environmental impact statement it completed back in 1986 in which the Havasupai people appealed. This will allow updated and new information about how ground water is being contaminated in the Grand Canyon by the Orphan mine. It will also bring new information on increased risk and events that have been documented where flooding occurs in these mine shafts and allows contaminated water to flow back to the surface through springs in the Grand Canyon.
The original impact statement was done before many of the voting adults in this region were born so the agency shouldn’t be allowed to use the information from longer than 20 years ago to make a decision that stands in the wake of new information and new citizens that can be directly affected.
Economically, mining in Northern Arizona is no longer even 1% of the economy. It’s driven by the Grand Canyon and tourism, so there are economic reasons not to jeopardize water quality in Grand Canyon. That’s why the City Council, Flagstaff and Sedona have taken a stance against any form of mining.
C: What can people do to get involved and help?
R: Currently, no environmental impact statement or public process is underway, but there may be if we win the lawsuit and then people can engage at that point. I think the most important thing people can do for now is to learn more with information sources like the Grand Canyon Trust, Sierra Club, National Parks and Conservation Association and others including the Havasupai tribe, for available information about threats of uranium mining around the Grand Canyon. Read Judy Pasternak’s book “Yellow Dirt” which she wrote when she was a reporter for the LA Times. She compiled a lot of research and findings that helps people better understand the legacy of uranium mining and milling from the 1950s-1980s.