Environmentalists, mining companies wait for Congress to act
By Krista Allen
Special to the Times
BIDÁÁ’ HA’AZT’I’ and TUSAYAN, Ariz.
Amber Reimondo, along with the Grand Canyon Trust, has been working all year to see a permanent mining ban in the Grand Canyon go through Congress.
They began to achieve that objective on Oct. 30 when the bill passed the U.S. House by a vote of 236 to 185. The House late last month approved HR 1373 (Grand Canyon Centennial Protection Act) that would protect the watershed, ecosystem, and the cultural heritage of the Grand Canyon (Bidáá’ Ha’azt’i’) region.
The bill sets a permanent moratorium on new uranium mining claims on at least 1,006,545 acres of federal land to the north and to the south of Grand Canyon National Park, said U.S. Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva, D-Ariz., co-sponsor of the bill that was introduced Feb. 26.
“HR 1373 is a combination of well over decades of efforts to protect the Grand Canyon and the clean waters of the Colorado River, the Colorado River watersheds from the toxic impacts of uranium mining,” Grijalva told the House Rules Committee.
“This mortarium was put in place after more than a two-year study of uranium impacts in the region,” he said. “Uranium mining continues to pose a threat to clean water, to a healthy environment, and to the tribal communities who’ve relied on the Grand Canyon for thousands of years.”
But Republicans said the bill would do a little to protect the Grand Canyon while killing mining jobs and making the country reliant on other countries for uranium.
“We already need uranium to meet our military, as well as lifestyle needs,” U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, said. “Ninety-seven percent of the uranium in the U.S. used is imported from foreign countries. The bulk of that is coming from four places, three (of which) used to be part of the U.S.”
Over two-thirds of the world’s production of uranium from mines is from Kazakhstan, Canada and Australia, according to the World Nuclear Association’s latest data. Kazakhstan produces the largest share of uranium from mines (41 percent of world supply in 2018), followed by Canada (13 percent), and Australia (12 percent). Namibia comes in fourth, followed by Niger and Russia.
“So, if you are actually trying to drive another nail in the coffin of American uranium development, which is the goal of this particular piece of legislation, to satisfy the special interest groups that want that,” Bishop said. “Well, that once again just demands that you’re going to have to rely on foreign sources of people who are not necessarily friendly to us from the supply of what we need for military defense in the future.”
Democrats said the real threat is to the popular natural treasure and to the residents of the area, including tribes that live around the canyon. “Obviously, the tribes we’ve been working with have been fighting uranium mining around Grand Canyon for a long time,” said Reimondo, the energy program director at Grand Canyon Trust.
“The Havasupai Tribe in particular, they’re especially concerned about Canyon Mine because part of the problem on the Grand Canyon, groundwater flow is not really well understood, so it’s hard to know if contamination happens here, where it will go.”
Reimondo said if contamination were to occur, it could run into the Grand Canyon or it could flow in the opposite direction and up in the Redwall-Muav Aquifer, the sole water source for the Havasupai in Havasu Canyon, in Supai, Arizona.
“So, Canyon Mine poses a threat to that and their way of life and their existence,” Reimondo explained in an interview in Tusayan.
Canyon Mine is located within the Kaibab National Forest on a fully permitted 17-acre site, about seven miles southeast of Tusayan.
Lakewood, Colorado-based Energy Fuels Inc., a conventional producer of uranium and vanadium, has completed surface infrastructure and the production shaft, according to the company’s November 2019 presentation. But Canyon Mine is on standby due to current uranium prices not favoring new production.
Thirty-five years ago, Energy Fuels submitted a proposed plan of operations to mine high-grade uranium and copper from the Canyon Mine claims. The U.S. Forest Service completed an environmental impact statement to evaluate the plan, including comment and input from the Havasupai and nearby tribes. On Sept. 29, 1986, after the final EIS and record of decision were issued by the Forest Service, Energy Fuels’ plan of operations for Canyon Mine was approved with modifications.
Later that year, mine site surface preparation began. Appeals of this decision were made. The Havasupai and others then took the decision to federal court for the District of Arizona, which ruled in favor of the Forest Service. An appeal later was filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals, which affirmed the District Court. “From 1982 to 1987, Energy Fuels … conducted exploration drilling, permitted the mine, and constructed certain surface facilities, including a headframe, hoist, and compressor,” reads the company’s 2017 technical report for Canyon Mine.
“(Energy Fuels) also sunk the shaft to a depth of 50 feet,” the report said. “In 2012, Energy Fuels acquired the project through its acquisition of Denison (Mine Corp.’s) U.S. assets.”
In 2013, the company refurbished the surface facilities and extended the mine shaft an additional 228 feet to a depth of 278 feet. Later that year the mine was placed on standby again due to low uranium prices. Energy Fuels in 2015 restarted the Canyon project and committed to completing the shaft and underground delineation drilling program.
“They didn’t finish digging their mine shaft until last year. In 2016, they hit over a million gallons of water,” Reimondo explained. “And it’s been going up ever since. In 2017, they hit almost 9 million gallons of water and last year, they had almost 10 million gallons. “So, it’s just increasing,” she said. “They have not started hauling ore yet, but because they’ve accessed the ore, the water’s contaminated because it flows into the mine shaft and it mixes with these mineralized deposits.”
She continued, “They’ve been pumping it out into a lined outside impoundment, also been using it to spray on the mine site as dust depression. So, in one place, they’re being careful to put it in a line impoundment and in another place, they’re intentionally spraying it on the ground. That’s Canyon Mine in a nutshell.”
Canyon Mine will be an underground uranium and copper mine with a proposed maximum production rate of 109,500 tons per year of uranium ore, according to Energy Fuels. No ore processing will be conducted onsite. However, it will be shipped to the White Mesa Mill in Blanding, Utah, meaning it will be hauled by trucks across Western Navajo.
But if the ore cannot be shipped immediately, it will be placed onsite in stockpiles.
Havasupai’s turquoise waters
The turquoise waters that flow through Havasu Canyon are precious. And they mean everything to the Havasupai people.
Water is the Havasupai’s most vital resource, explained a member of the Havasupai Tribe who lives in Supai. Water is life for the tribe of fewer than 1,000 people who use the water to bathe, clean, drink, produce food, and to keep them and their environment healthy. “The water that runs through our canyon is very special to us,” Carol Rogers told the Navajo Times in 2017. “We have a lot of visitors from around the world who come through our village. The water runs through the campgrounds where (campers) swim and enjoy the water. Water is life for them too.”
But what happens if uranium contaminates the waters that flow through Havasu Canyon? “What are we going to do?” Vivian Wescogame asked in tears. “Even my grandkids ask, ‘What are we going to do? What are we going to drink?’” Wescogame also said at the time that the only thing to do is to fight for the water.
The fight began over a decade ago in response to a spike in uranium prices. More than 1,000 mining claims were staked on public lands surrounding Grand Canyon National Park.
To combat the looming threat to the landscape, Grijalva introduced the Grand Canyon Watersheds Protection Act of 2008 to withdraw approximately 1 million acres outside the park from mineral development. This action prompted the U.S. Secretary of the Interior to launch an environmental analysis of uranium mining in the area.
After considering nearly 300,000 public comments and scientific studies of the environmental impacts of uranium mining, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar issued a 20-year moratorium on new mining claims on 1 million acres of federal land surrounding the park. The ban (the Northern Arizona Mineral Withdrawal) is still in effect today, but it provides only temporary protections to the Grand Canyon watershed and to the communities whose livelihoods depend on it.
Uranium does not belong
Uranium does not belong here, said Benjamin Jones from Supai.
“It’s dangerous, it contaminates Mother Earth,” he told the Times during a Havasupai gathering at Red Butte, a Havasupai sacred site near Tusayan. “We depend on the water to live. It’s going to threaten our livelihood, the Havasupai people, and the people living along the Colorado River.”
Tourism is a large portion of the Havasupai economy, according to Havasupai tribal members. The tribe runs its own tourism office, a café, a lodge, and a general store.
Members also have small businesses such as leading tour groups and packing supplies in and out of the canyon. “Once (Havasu Canyon) is contaminated (with uranium), there will be no source of income,” Jones added. “We’ll be getting sick and dying off. We’re not that many people. We’re more like an extinct tribe.”
This is why it’s important that Congress acts to permanently protect the landscape, because the Trump administration continues to try to remove protections to benefit a small handful of mining industries, said Grijalva.
“As the footprint of these activities increase, it is more important than ever that we work to protect exceptional landscapes from the impacts of mining and drilling. We shouldn’t need to keep rehashing this argument over and over again,” Grijalva said.
“This legislation (HR 1373) directs that the time to protect Grand Canyon is now. There are some places that are just too precious to exploit.” Now, Reimondo and the Grand Canyon Trust are waiting for the bill to be introduced to the U.S. Senate – with hopes of approval – and then signed by the U.S. president.
“It’s a long road,” said Reimondo, who has been working for the trust since 2016, “and we may achieve it in this Congress, or we may have to shoot for the next. Those are the primary goals.”
Reimondo said the Grand Canyon Trust has been working on this since 2010. “And then the other part of my work is trying to keep the temporary mining ban in place and help out the broad spectrum of the northern Arizona community … really, a large broad community of folks that care about the Grand Canyon, that care about protecting the canyon’s water and lands,” she said. “And they want to see the temporary band made permanent.”
Energy Fuels responds
But even if HR 1373 is passed, it may not affect the status quo.
Curtis H. Moore, vice president of marketing and corporate development at Energy Fuels, said his understanding of the bill is that it makes President Barack Obama’s 20-year “mineral withdrawal” permanent.
The Obama administration in early 2012 banned new uranium mining claims around the Grand Canyon for 20 years, the longest moratorium allowed by law. The decision put more than 1 million acres of public lands outside the park off limits to all hard-rock mining, but existing mining operations were allowed to continue.
“So, HR 1373 is not technically a mining ban,” said Moore, who is also the assistant general counsel for the company. “Both Obama’s mineral withdrawal and HR 1373 are subject to valid existing rights.”
When Obama enacted the 20-year moratorium, the Bureau of Land Management projected that up to 11 uranium deposits – including four that were approved – in the withdrawn area (355,874 acres of U.S. Forest Service land on the Kaibab National Forest; 626,678 acres of BLM lands; and 23,993 acres of split estate) could still be developed based on valid preexisting existing rights, meaning that jobs supported by mining in the area would increase or remain flat.
“They (BLM and then Interior Secretary Ken Salazar) stated that up to 11 uranium deposits in the withdrawn area may have valid existing rights and therefore could potentially go into production,” Moore said. “The Canyon Mine has valid existing rights, so even if HR 1373 passes the Senate and is signed by President Trump, this mine still should be able to operate,” he said.
Moore said that the Energy Fuels team is not actively opposing HR 1373 because it doesn’t think it’s necessary.
“The whole point of Obama’s mineral withdrawal was to study the effects of modern-era, small-scale uranium mining,” he explained. “We think we should let science guide policy, and, in this case, the science is getting pretty close to settled. “To date, no one has identified any negative effects to surface water, groundwater, wildlife, plant life, et al, from what I call the modern era of uranium mining – mining that has occurred in the withdrawal area since the late seventies,” he said. “And as one might expect, mining practices, regulations, oversight, technology, et al, are far better now than they were in the seventies and eighties. But we’re fine continuing to study it.”
Moore said the uranium mining that caused the most issues, especially for the Diné and other tribes, was mining that occurred during the 1940s to the 1960s, when uranium mining was a Cold War-era, government-sponsored defense program.
“Today, the pendulum has swung way over in the other direction, now emphasizing human health and environmental protection,” Moore added. “To date, the Canyon Mine is in full compliance with all laws and regulations and has a great track record.
“We’re very proud of what we’re accomplishing there and proud of the clean, carbon-free energy the mine will eventually produce,” he said. “The activists are doing their typical dishonest fear-mongering with the Canyon Mine, but I can assure you that, at best, they are hugely exaggerating and, at worst, they’re lying.”