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USFS proposes revisions to 20-year uranium mining ban

Excess water containing dissolved uranium is being sprayed into the air in an attempt to evaporate the water. A wet winter has caused the mine to fill with water beyond the capacity of its holding tanks.
Laurel Morales/KJZZ's Fronteras Desk

Excess water containing dissolved uranium is being sprayed into the air in an attempt to evaporate the water. A wet winter has caused the mine to fill with water beyond the capacity of its holding tanks.

GRAND CANYON, Ariz. — In an announcement Nov. 1, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) took the first step toward eliminating the ban on new uranium mining leases near Grand Canyon National Park.

In March 2017, President Donald Trump issued an executive order requiring the heads of all federal regulatory agencies to “immediately review existing regulations that potentially burden the development or use of domestically produced energy resources and appropriately suspend, revise, or rescind those that unduly burden the development of domestic energy resources.”

One of the policies revisited by USFS during this review is the 20-year ban on uranium mining in and around Grand Canyon National Park, which was put in place by former Interior Secretary Ken Salazaar in 2012.

USFS recommended in its final report that Public Land Order 7787 be revised to allow for potential mineral development on the previously-withdrawn lands.

But what does revision entail?

At this time, it’s not clear. The USFS report does not explicitly advise eliminating the ban. According to Grand Canyon Trust energy program director Amber Reimondo, revising the ban could mean a number of things, including narrowing the duration of the ban, which is currently set to expire in 2032. Revision could also shrink the acreage included in the ban, which covers around 1 million acres in the Grand Canyon watershed.

Among the 15 actions recommended for revision or elimination, USFS rated uranium mining ban second to last, making it a low-priority action. Most of the actions reviewed in the report are aimed at saving the agency money or increasing revenue by expediting or streamlining processes current -ly in place in regards to coal, oil and natural gas extraction.

According to the report, these actions would allow for greater efficiency, enabling USFS staff to complete more National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) assessments and funnel more staff and funding to projects the agency considers higher risk in terms of environmental compliance.

The United State Department of Agriculture, which oversees the forest service, points out, however, that the federal government does not receive any revenue from uranium mining and the majority of mineral leases on public lands. Taking steps to remove or revise the ban would likely cost taxpayers more, as the administration would have to fund additional environmental studies to refute the current scientific findings that uranium is harmful to local wildlife and communities. Those findings were upheld by the U.S. District Court of Arizona in 2014 after the National Mining Association sued to overturn the ban.

The 20-year ban was put in place to allow scientists to study the potential effects of uranium mining on the Grand Canyon watershed, which provides water to about 25 million people, including the metro areas of Phoenix and Los Angeles.

“Calling this a step back would be an understatement,” said Rep. Tom O’Halleran, whose district includes much of the Grand Canyon, in a statement. “The ban on uranium mining in the watershed of the Grand Canyon has improved water and land quality within tribal communities and throughout Arizona. The administration should be focused on cleaning up the hundreds of uranium mines still contaminating northern Arizona communities.”

Evidence of that contamination is evident within a few hours’ drive of the South Rim, where residents of the Navajo Nation are contending with increased amounts of uranium in their bodies and higher occurrences of cancer because of the hundreds of now-defunct uranium mines still awaiting cleanup on the reservation. The tribe’s struggle was recently chronicled in “Hope + Trauma in a Poisoned Land,” a multi-media art exhibit at the Coconino Center for the Arts.

The Havasupai Tribe, who have inhabited the area for hundreds of years and currently live at the bottom of the canyon, rely exclusively on the Grand Canyon’s seeps and springs as their sole water source.

“This is a dangerous industry that is motivated by profit and greed with a long history of significantly damaging lands and waters,” said Havasupai Tribal Chairman Don E. Watahomigie. “They are now seeking new mines when this industry has yet to clean up the hundreds of existing mines all over the landscape that continue to damage our home. We should learn from the past, not ignore it.”

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