Trump Plan Ends Research On Uranium Mining Near Grand Canyon

PHOENIX, AZ — Two new billboards in Phoenix targeting Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke warn that opening up Grand Canyon National Park to uranium mining could be harmful to wildlife and threaten water quality. The billboards were erected amid fears that the Trump administration may roll back an Obama-era ban on new mining claims around what has been described as the most spectacular gorge in the world.

That would be a monumental mistake, according to both the Arizona Wildlife Federation and Trout Unlimited, thtwo advocacy groups behind the billboards. The 2012 moratorium on new mining claims protects about 1 million acres of public lands until 2032.

Uranium, a heavy metal, can be used for nuclear power generation and also in the creation of nuclear weapons, among other purposes. The Trump administration has signaled that it may upend the 2012 moratorium on new mining claims, known a mineral withdrawal, to bolster domestic energy production and promote the mining of critical minerals in the United States.

In December, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the moratorium, but said in a separate case that a uranium mining company could open near the Grand Canyon. (Get Phoenix Patch's real-time news alerts and free morning news letters. Like us on Facebook. Also, download the free Patch iPhone app or free Patch Android app.)

The Arizona Wildlife Federation said that the "Protect Your Canyon" billboards — one off Interstate 10 and East Van Buren Street, the other near Interstate 17 and Pinnacle Peak Road — are meant to convey a simple but urgent message: "Protect his iconic national treasure."

Although there has been no specific legislation to open the Grand Canyon area to additional uranium mining permits — those existing before the moratorium were not affected — "our view is that it is under attack," Scott Garlid, the conservation director for the AWF, told Patch.

"In the last few months, there have been a number of indications the current administration is reconsidering that mineral withdrawal," Garlid said.

Zinke spokeswoman Faith Vander Voort said the secretary has no plans to open the Grand Canyon for more uranium, though the House of Representatives' Western Caucus, chaired by Arizona Republican Rep. Paul A. Gosar, wants to see the ban lifted.

Last month, Gosar and his colleagues sent a letter to President Trump, Zinke and Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue questioning the merits of the mining withdrawal protecting the Grand Canyon plateau, demanding that it and nearly three dozen other mineral withdrawals across the country be reversed.

The letter didn't mention the Grand Canyon specifically, but said high-grade uranium deposits in Arizona could provide a domestic source for nuclear fuel and weapons

Uranium was recently added to the critical minerals list, which includes minerals deemed critical to the economic and national security of the United States. That "sets the stage" for Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who has been investigating the effects of uranium imports on national security, to recommend the Grand Canyon area be opened for new uranium mining, Garlid said.

"Our view is it is under attack, even though no official legislation," he said. "All it takes is a decision by Secretary Zinke."

The 2012 mineral withdrawal had broad, bipartisan support.

"It's not just a Democrat, left-leaning thing, but was supported by sportsmen's groups, hunters and fishermen, who tend to be more conservative," Garlid said. "We want to make sure they understand it's supported by sportsmen."

Garlid said the touted economic benefits of expanding uranium mining in the Grand Canyon area "aren't there." Additional mining could create a "handful of jobs," he said, but not as many as the outdoor recreation industry.

"There are no royalties, and 92 percent of the companies are foreign-owned," Garlid said. "It's not like it would help the U.S. economy or the economy in northern Arizona, but it would put it at risk."

The geohydrology of the fissured rock that makes the Grand Canyon "so epic" is unknown and a uranium incident could put the water supplies for communities in the watershed at risk, Garlid said.

"The Canyon mine was thought to be a dry mine, but when mining operations began, it unexpectedly filled with water," he said. "It came from somewhere, and it's also going somewhere, and they don't know where that is, either."

Garlid said it would take "a major event" to contaminate the Colorado River, which carved the Grand Canyon about 6 million years ago, "and that's unlikely."

Still, he said, the uranium mining industry has a "terrible track record" when it comes to cleanup. Within the Navajo Nation — a 27,000-square-mile are spread across Arizona, New Mexico and Utah that is home to more than 250,000 — some 500 uranium mines abandoned by companies at the end of the Cold War have yet to be cleaned up.

The mines were a chief source of uranium used to make nuclear weapons, and more than 4 million tons were blasted from Navajo land from 1944-1986. Contamination has been linked to the deaths of many Navajo people from kidney failure and cancer, and research from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that babies are being born with uranium in their systems.

"Why would we want to allow more?" Garlid said.

Photo by Arizona Wildlife Federation, used with permission

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Trump plan ends research on uranium mining near Grand Canyon
Trump plan ends research on uranium mining near Grand Canyon
Trump plan ends research on uranium mining near Grand Canyon
Trump plan ends research on uranium mining near Grand Canyon
Trump plan ends research on uranium mining near Grand Canyon
Trump plan ends research on uranium mining near Grand Canyon
Trump plan ends research on uranium mining near Grand Canyon