Deep in the ground surrounding one of America’s most well-known natural landmarks, the Grand Canyon, lies reserves of a radioactive mineral necessary for nuclear energy production across the country.
No one can touch the high-grade uranium deposits – for now.
Health concerns over uranium contamination in nearby water supplies spurred the Obama administration to issue a 20-year ban on its mining in the roughly 1 million acres of federal land surrounding the Grand Canyon in order to study its effects on the environment and public health.
Opponents of uranium mining argue that it could contaminate the Colorado River and its tributaries, which are a water source for roughly 40 million people. Ingesting it can cause health problems like kidney damage, and exposure to its radiation can bring an increased risk of cancer as well as a risk of high blood pressure, autoimmune diseases and reproductive issues, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
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But as pressure mounts from the Trump administration to rely less on foreign countries for resources like critical minerals, tribal nations who now experience higher rates of cancer linked to previous uranium mining operations, environmental groups and Democrats are worried the ban around the Grand Canyon could be reversed.
They say that recent steps by the Trump administration are reason for concern and they are gearing up for a fight that potentially pits human safety against the development of U.S. energy reserves.
“Over the past two years, the Trump administration has bent over backwards to make the uranium industry’s wish list come true,” Rep. Alan Lowenthal, D-Calif., said at a recent congressional hearing.
Those steps include moves by the Interior and Commerce departments to reclassify uranium as a critical mineral and recommend increased mining in the U.S.
Because of these developments, eyes are on the Trump administration as it weighs a petition from two energy companies that seeks a 25% purchasing quota for domestic uranium, a move that could eventually put pressure on the White House to open back up the land around the Grand Canyon. A decision is expected in the coming weeks.
Interior Department Secretary David Bernhardt said he has “no reason” to support lifting the Obama-era ban, but even if the administration denies the pending petition, experts say the topic of uranium mining around the Grand Canyon won’t go away anytime soon.
The federal land around the Grand Canyon could hold roughly 12% of Northern Arizona’s untapped uranium, the U.S. Geological Survey estimates.
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Uranium is used to fuel the nearly 100 operating nuclear reactors in the U.S., according to USGS.
More than 95% of the uranium the U.S. uses is imported from countries like Canada, Australia, Russia and Kazakhstan, and the remaining 5% is mined in several states, including Wyoming, Nebraska and Texas.
In addition to the ban, the Obama administration ordered a 15-year study on the effects of mining in the area. That research is underfunded and behind schedule, says Amber Reimondo, the energy program director for the Grand Canyon Trust, a nonprofit organization dedicated to conservation of the national park in Arizona.
It’s a tall order to study how water moves through a complex geological system that is millions of years old, she says.
By the time the ban lifts in 2032, “there won’t be definitive answers,” Reimondo predicts.
Mining advocates say the environmental protections in place are adequate and frame the issue as one of national security.
“There are ample federal, state and local regulations that protect the environment where mining occurs, and recent years have been plagued with examples of unnecessary overreach when it comes to land withdraws,” Ashley Burke of the National Mining Association says in an email.
Pointing to a recent Department of Commerce report, Burke says “import dependence for minerals that are key to our national and economic security continues to grow, highlighting the need to increase – not reduce – domestic minerals and metal production.”
“It’s time to correct those instances of overreach and work to encourage modern mining so that we can rebuild our domestics minerals supply chain and decisively address our alarming import reliance,” Burke says.
Among those who would be most affected by a lift on the ban are tribal nations, according to Rebecca Tsosie, a professor at the University of Arizona Law who studies indigenous people’s human rights.
The uranium contamination in tribal water sources from previous uranium mining and production operations that started in the 1940s as the U.S. encouraged the building of nuclear weapons stockpiles is “massive,” Tsosie says.
Cleaning uranium contamination out of water is impractical and costly, Reimondo adds. “It’s hard to clean water inside of a rock,” she says.
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On top of the complexities of the cleanup process, Reimondo says tribal nations have struggled to get mining companies to take responsibility for the contamination.
“The burden of proof is continuing to fall on the native communities to prove the mining companies owe them something,” Reimondo says.
Persistent problems with uranium contamination in water sources, crops, livestock and homes led the Navajo Nation to issue its own ban on uranium mining on its land.
Last month Navajo Nation Vice President Myron Lizer spoke in support of a bill in the House that would permanently ban uranium mining on federal lands around the Grand Canyon.
“Although mining companies may state their intention to clean up their mine sites upon completion of mining activities, our direct experience has shown otherwise,” Lizer said outside the Capitol in Washington, D.C.
“There are over 523 abandoned uranium mines on the Navajo Nation, and it will take many decades to address them, not to mention billions of dollars. Further, uranium mine sites can remain radioactive for millions of years and therefore continue to be a health and environmental risk to the Navajo people,” Lizer said.
A recent Supreme Court decision highlighted a feeling among some states that oversight of the environmental and public health risks that come with uranium mining is inadequate.
The highest court in the country in a 6-3 decision upheld Virginia’s ban on uranium mining in a case that pitted the federal government’s interest in raw materials needed for nuclear weapons and power plants against the state’s desire to control its natural resources. Last year, the court declined to hear an industry challenge to the Obama-era ban in Arizona in a victory for tribal communities and environmental groups.
“It’s just that no one wants the mess,” Tsosie says. “It’s expensive. It’s inconvenient.”
Without a holistic federal policy that addresses the entire lifecycle of uranium, “the issue is never going to go away,” Tsosie says.