More than 4 million visitors each year seek out the sunset-colored vistas of the Grand Canyon National Park—making it the second-most visited national park in America. Therefore, it was no surprise in 2009 when Interior Secretary Ken Salazar decided to protect one million acres of land around the Grand Canyon by putting a halt to uranium mining. This was in accord with the Bureau of Land Management's request to properly assess the impact of mining on this sensitive landscape.
However, after two years of research was completed, scientists told the government that more data is needed to make conclusions about how pollutants act in the canyon's intricate, vast watershed. In January 2012, the million-acre land protection was extended another 20 years. This 20 year timeline is not arbitrary, but rather an estimated amount of time required to successfully complete an Environmental Impact Statement on such a large-scale ecosystem.
Scientists know that there are naturally occurring toxins in the canyon environment, such as uranium, arsenic, and selenium. What they don't know is the extent to which mining—which uses massive amounts of water—concentrates these levels of toxins, especially in areas that would harm plants and animals.
Not only does uranium mining pollute water, it also removes water from naturally occurring seeps or springs which species depend on for survival. Removing water sources for plants and animals is devastating, and has long-term impacts on the entire environment. Moreover, not only does uranium mining affect local plants and animals, but scientists are also concerned for the toxicity levels in the Colorado River, which supplies water for seven states.
Environmental organizations are working to keep the uranium ban in place—to the chagrin of mining corporations. This year, Earthjustice filed a motion to defend Salazar's decision, on behalf of The Havasupai Tribe, Grand Canyon Trust, Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity, and National Parks Conservation Association. Our goal is to protect the Grand Canyon's watersheds, plants, and animals from new mining pollution, and err on the side of caution when dealing with toxic elements.
Listen to Earthjustice attorney Ted Zukoski's comments on the uranium mining ban during the January 13, 2012, EJ90 episode, "Grand Canyon's Million-Acre Uranium Mining Ban Finalized":
This feature was published on September 19, 2012.