Uranium mining at the Grand Canyon threatens environment and the health of native nations

Northern Arizona tribes are fighting to protect the environment and sacred sites of the Greater Grand Canyon against pollution from uranium mining. Lawsuits, organizations and protests have all been part of the effort. Last fall, U.S. Representative Raul Grijalva released a bill to make the Greater Grand Canyon a National Monument.

Roger Clark, program director of Grand Canyon Trust, explained how “the bill is mostly to provide language on the topic. Where many of the issues surrounding it are directly between tribes and the state, this opens up a narrative so the next couple of years there may actually be something done.”

As it stands, the Grand Canyon is currently being protected by a 20-year ban that was enacted in 2012, on the creation of new mines in the greater Grand Canyon area. Only mines that had been previously approved are allowed to produce uranium. The result was two years of lawsuits from private mining companies who had been examining the area for potential exploits.

The lawsuits centered on new companies attempts to reopen the Grand Canyon to exploration and production.

Another big win for the Navajo tribe was in 2014 when the Supreme Court protected this act. Actions such as the 20-year ban have in part been the cause of the infrequent market of uranium since the mid 1900’s.

Uranium ore was found in the Grand Canyon in the 1950’s when most of its product was given to the federal government for testing or production. The market for uranium is sporadic, there are mines that have been abandoned with nothing done to prevent further pollution. Contamination of underground water sources continued along with the streams and rivers through the gorges.

Studies were released nearly three decades later that linked cancer and respiratory diseases in the Navajo people to the pollution coming from the mine and effects of working in the mine. They have been dealing with these issues ever since.

Despite the impact on those who live near the mines, uranium is being used as an effective source of energy. Small amounts of uranium can be used to produce more energy, which can cut the use of coal and provide a way to move from non-renewable sources. Uranium is far more available and easily extracted than coal; there are several locations outside of the Grand Canyon that hold deposits and many throughout the world.

Energy Fuels is currently the only company working on mines in the area. They have released statements explaining current and future plans for the mines. In these plans, they provide information on new intercepts of deposits in the area and new techniques of mining that will be used this year.

According to the CEO of Energy Fuels, Stephen Anthony, in his article on the move to clean energy “if we are to achieve continued growth in renewables, while maintaining 24/7 reliability, grid stability and clean air, we absolutely need to increase our exposure to nuclear power here at home. Remember, our current fleet of nuclear power plants already generates about 63% of all low-carbon/low-emission energy in the U.S., [and] boasts an unmatched record of reliability and safety, and avoids billions of tons of air emissions.”

There are efforts on both sides to make the extraction and use of uranium cleaner and safer for all involved. Lawsuits from tribes and other locals in the Grand Canyon area are working to force stringent safety standards on the current mines. Several organizations have also begun training and work on old or abandoned mines in order to clean up what contamination they can.

The Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals began training Navajo workers in the necessary fields to start clean up projects. This has given the Navajo people opportunities for professional work and has been recognized by the EPA for its work to clean up abandoned mines.

Roberta Tohannie, the coordinator for the Navajo Nation Environmental Workforce Development Program, explains the reason for this program.

“There is a legacy of mining in the area and involvement of the tribes because of how close it was to home. But the long term effects of having to endure living near these has almost given a sort of want to be a part of the clean up process. They have a strong connection to the land, along with a need to protect the land, water, air and wildlife,” said Tohannie.

Many within the tribes have plans to continue in their individual protests and working to minimize the pollution where they can.

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