Uranium mining threatens to pollute Grand Canyon water and air
Polluting the Grand Canyon for “clean energy”
The Doomsday Clock, established in 1947 by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, has moved closer to midnight than at any time in its history. The scientists see the world in 2023 as 90 seconds from apocalypse, due to the threat of nuclear war arising from the Ukraine War.
The United States has sanctioned Russian gas and oil but hasn’t yet sanctioned low-enrichment uranium from Russia because it sells US companies somewhere between a quarter and a half of all the low-enriched uranium used by commercial nuclear reactors. But that could change: today there are bills in both houses of Congress to sanction Russian enriched uranium and to stimulate the moribund US uranium-mining industry, driven out of business due to import competition, disasters such as Fukushima, Three Mile Island, Church Rock, Chernobyl, and increased environmental regulation.
The richest US uranium deposits are on the Colorado Plateau. The Navajo Nation alone contains more than a thousand abandoned uranium mines left over from a boom that busted 30 years ago and their radioactive tailings are a continuing danger to residents.
One of the richest grades of ore is around the Grand Canyon, where the Obama administration in 2012 put a 20-year moratorium on new uranium mines. But the moratorium didn’t include the Energy Fuels Inc.’s existing and permitted Pinyon Plain Mine or its White Mesa Mill, the only operational uranium-processing mill in the country. Pinyon Plain ore grade is between .88 and .95 percent uranium. By contrast, the grade of uranium ore in Texas runs around .12. Canadian uranium deposits in the Athabascan Basin, on the other hand, are more than twice as rich as Energy Fuel’s Pinyon Plain Mine and their mines are not in the middle of one of the most popular and spectacular tourist attractions in the world. The White Mesa mill processes the wastes from nuclear reactors at a lower grade, recovering minimal quantities of uranium oxide and producing depleted uranium tailings.
The uranium boom that began the early 1950s on the Colorado Plateau left a haunting legacy of government and industry deceit, radiation pollution, and sickened mine workers exploited with low salaries in unventilated mines, who were denied knowledge of the health dangers, particularly kidney damage and cancer, from their work.
Today, Energy Fuels’ mine threatens the only source of water the Havasupai tribe have, and its mill threatens to pollute water and air for the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation residents of White Mesa and to pollute the San Juan River and contaminate plants gathered for medicine.
Dianna Sue White Dove Uqualla, a former Havasupai council member and community health worker and now an elder of Supai Village, put her tribe’s situation in the most dramatic terms: “If we are meant to die here we will die here. When they kept us in the canyon they didn’t understand that we were living in Shangri-La. We’re not going to move,” she said at a gathering at Red Butte, a sacred site for the Havasupai on the canyon rim. In order to hold the ceremony, they had to get a permit from the Forest Service.
This echoes a story as old as Thanksgiving: the white men pushing Native Americans off their land and away from their holy sites.
The Grand Canyon itself is a holy site for all the tribes that have joined in the Grand Canyon Tribal Coalition with Arizona US Senator Kirstin Sinema and Rep. Raul Grijalva to persuade the President Biden administration to establish the the Baai Nwaavio I’tah Kukveni Grand Canyon National Monument to forever outlaw uranium mining on 1.1 million acres around the canyon.
On May 20, Secretary of Interior Debra Haaland, an enrolled member of the Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico, met with the group to listen to urgent reasons for protecting the environment and people, including millions of tourists, of the Grand Canyon.
Colleen Kaska, a US Army veteran and Havasupai tribal council member, recently put the drastic nature of the threat in perspective: “Accidents happen, tornadoes, floods, hurricanes, road crashes, mistakes happen, that’s just life. Once a disaster occurs there’s no fixing it and there’s no going back,” she said.
Once mining begins at the Pinyon Plain site, the danger to the only water source the Havasupai have, a creek that includes the iconic turquoise waterfall at the bottom of the canyon, begins to escalate. The mine could pollute the creek, the water supply for tourists, and the Colorado River itself.
The Coalition includes the Havasupai Tribe, Hopi Tribe, Hualapai Tribe, Kaibab Paiute Tribe, Las Vegas Band of Paiute Tribe, Moapa Band of Paiutes, Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah, Navajo Nation, San Juan Southern Paiute Tribe, Yavapai-Apache Nation, Pueblo of Zuni, and the Colorado River Indian Tribes, along with the Grand Canyon Trust, an NGO that has worked to protect the resources and people of the Grand Canyon since 1985.
The Wilderness Society reported that Baai Nwaavio means “where tribes roam” in Havasupai and “I’tah Kukveni means ‘our footprints’ in Hopi. ‘Where tribes roam; our footprints.’”
Opposing the people is a policy set out by the Nuclear Fuels Working Group established by former President Donald Trump, which states with logic worthy of the Cold looking-glass War:
“Finally, the U.S. Government will move into markets currently dominated by Russian and Chinese State Owned Enterprises (SOE) and recover our position as the world leader in exporting best-in-class nuclear energy technology, and with it, strong non-proliferation standards. We will restore American nuclear credibility and demonstrate American commitment to competing in contested markets and repositioning America as the responsible nuclear energy partner of choice.”
Uranium Producers of America spent $1,240,000 between 2018-2022 to lobby Congress to underwrite the renewal of uranium mining in the United States while sanctioning uranium from Russia and former Soviet republics. This particular group of American patriotic firms contains three American corporations, six Canadian corporations, and one Australian corporation.
Energy Fuels Inc. spent a total of $200,000 in 2022 alone; and, “From 2017 through 2020,” the Salt Lake Tribune reported, “Energy Fuels paid $310,000 to the lobbying firm Faegre Baker Daniels (now known as Faegre Drinker Biddle & Reath) to press the company’s agenda with the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. trade representative, the White House and others, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.”
“Another large rush of contributions came in late February and March last year, when seven board members and executives at Energy Fuels donated $13,000 to (John) Barrasso (R-WY). During that same time period, the senator was championing the creation of the uranium stockpile through legislation, and, on March 3, he pressed then-Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette to provide “immediate relief” to uranium miners in the United States.
“In recent years, U.S. power plants have imported more than 90% of their fuel from abroad, including from Russia and Kazakhstan, which according to Energy Fuels and Ur-Energy posed a national security risk.”
The military would receive an “ancillary benefit” from the program, the report added.
Trump’s Nuclear Fuels Working Group suggested that the government create a uranium reserve stockpile for domestically mined uranium, funded at $150 million. Residents of uranium-mining areas and environmental groups persuaded the government to drop the ”domestic-only” clause and the GAO halved the amount of this subsidy to the miners, whose only brush with the free market has been the free market in members of Congress.
For $500,000 and change in lobbying funds over a few years, Energy Fuels landed a contract in December with the federal government for $18.5 million in uranium ore at $61 a ton, $10 above the world price.
“We hope that the strategic uranium reserve will get a second look because we’re not sure it’s anything more than a handout to the uranium industry and specifically to Energy Fuels,” Amber Reimondo, energy director for the Grand Canyon Trust, told the press. She added that “tribal governments whose citizens might be impacted by new uranium mining should be included in those discussions.”