The Havasupai Tribe and conservation groups decried a House subcommittee hearing today where lawmakers considered lifting a 20-year ban on new uranium mining across 1 million acres of public lands near Grand Canyon National Park. The ban, instituted by the Department of the Interior in 2012, was upheld by a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision earlier today. It prevents further soil and water pollution from uranium mining and gives researchers time to study its risks to the Grand Canyon’s aquifers and springs.
The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources, chaired by Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.), provided a forum for the National Mining Association to attack the uranium-mining ban that is supported by tribes, regional businesses and the public. The hearing comes days after President Trump ordered more than 2 million acres slashed from Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in Utah.
Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), who spearheaded the attacks on the national monuments, has called for lifting the Grand Canyon uranium-mining ban. The Trump administration also recommended rolling back the ban in a November U.S. Forest Service report.
“The Northern Arizona Mineral Withdrawal must remain in place,” said Havasupai tribal Vice Chairman Edmond Tilousi. “Opening the doors to uranium mining before we understand how it will affect our waters gambles with the very survival of the Havasupai people. We have always been the protectors of the Grand Canyon, and have faced new threats with every generation. My heart hurts knowing that these companies will stop at nothing to make a profit for themselves today, with complete disregard for the consequences for those of us left to live with their mess. These profiteers do not care if they destroy our waters. They do not care if the waste they make today poisons or kills our tribal members as it seeps into our springs. The 20-year ban and the studies it mandates are the only things protecting us. They need to continue until completion.”
The Havasupai Tribe, Grand Canyon Trust, Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity and National Parks Conservation Association have for years worked to protect the Grand Canyon region from uranium-mining impacts. They’ve intervened on the side of the government to defend against a uranium-industry lawsuit challenging the 2012 withdrawal. A 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision today upheld that ban, calling it a “cautious approach” and “risk-averse” to potentially permanent damage from uranium mining.
“The Department of the Interior's decision to enact these critical protections was met with resounding support from a diverse array of stakeholders nationwide," said Ted Zukoski, an attorney with Earthjustice. “Given the potential for irreversible uranium contamination to Grand Canyon’s aquifers and springs, and the direct threat this poses to a critical source of life and identity of the Havasupai Tribe, it made perfect sense in 2012, and it makes perfect sense now.”
In 2007 more than 10,000 uranium-mining claims were staked on public lands surrounding the Grand Canyon, raising concern among tribes, businesses and local governments. The ban followed an exhaustive environmental impact statement assessing uranium-mining risks. According to Interior’s study, new uranium mining could harm springs, wells and aquifers, including increasing levels of uranium beyond federal drinking-water standards, severely depleting aquifers, endangering public health and wildlife, and compromising the values of the tribes who consider the springs sacred.
Interior’s study showed that without a mining ban, 26 new uranium mines and 700 uranium exploration projects would be developed, resulting in more than 1,300 acres of surface disturbance and the consumption of 970 acre-feet of water. More than 500 abandoned uranium mines still pollute land and water on the Navajo Nation, which has banned uranium mining. Water in Horn Creek, in Grand Canyon National Park, exceeds federal uranium standards owing to pollution from the abandoned Orphan mine on the canyon’s south rim.
“Multinational uranium companies export processed uranium mined from our nation’s public lands,” said Roger Clark with the Grand Canyon Trust. “We are alarmed that this administration favors the interests of foreign investors at the risk of poisoning places like the Grand Canyon, while potentially adding to the more than $1 billion debt that U.S. taxpayers must pay for cleaning up the mess from our region’s last uranium boom."
“There is every reason to keep this mining ban in place and no good reason to reverse it,” said Sandy Bahr, Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon chapter director. “In fact, public lands around Grand Canyon should be permanently protected from uranium mining and other destructive measures that threaten waters, wildlife, and tribal resources. These public lands are significant in their own right, plus protecting them helps to protect the watershed for Grand Canyon.”
The Grand Canyon is the most spectacular gorge in the world and a biodiversity hotspot that anchors the tourism economy of the Four Corners region. The canyon area is home to indigenous people, including the Havasupai, and has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. In 2016 the greater Grand Canyon region attracted a record 6 million tourists and recreationists, and Grand Canyon National Park tourism alone contributed $904 million to local economies and supported nearly 9,800 jobs.
“We must uphold the current, commonsense plan to protect Grand Canyon National Park and vital tribal water sources,” said Kevin Dahl, Arizona program manager for National Parks Conservation Association. “The purpose of the moratorium is to stop any risk to the limited underground water that feeds Grand Canyon’s important seeps, springs, and side creeks — and the entire water supply of the Havasupai people. Let’s stick with this prudent effort until we can be absolutely sure mining won’t pollute the aquifer.”
“Any effort to lift this crucial ban will meet fierce opposition,” said Taylor McKinnon with the Center for Biological Diversity. “There’s every reason to believe uranium mining will permanently damage Grand Canyon’s precious aquifers and springs. That’s an unacceptable risk, and it’s immoral of Congress and Trump to even consider it.”
Ted Zukoski, Earthjustice, (w) (303) 996-9622, (c) (303) 641-3149
Don Watahomigie, Havasupai Chairman, (928) 448-2731
Sandy Bahr, Sierra Club – Grand Canyon Chapter, (602) 999-5790
Roger Clark, Grand Canyon Trust, (928) 890-7515
Taylor McKinnon, Center for Biological Diversity, (801) 300-2414
Kevin Dahl, National Parks Conservation Association, (520) 603-6430