"Beyond unacceptable": Conservationists slam judge's Grand Canyon ruling

Activists warn that the proposed uranium mine will irreversibly contaminate the canyon's underground aquifiers

Published August 14, 2015 9:00AM (EDT)

  (Lance Longwell)
(Lance Longwell)

This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

AlterNet In June, the Grand Canyon was named one of the "Most Endangered Places" in America by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. But the designation came just two months too late to possibly influence U.S. District Court Judge David Campbell. In April, he denied a request by the Havasupai tribe and a coalition of conservation groups to halt new uranium mining next to Grand Canyon National Park, just six miles from the Grand Canyon's South Rim.

"We are very disappointed with the ruling by Judge Campbell in the Canyon Mine case," said Havasupai Chairman Rex Tilousi. "We believe that the National Historic Preservation Act requires the Forest Service to consult with us and the other affiliated tribes before they let the mining company damage Red Butte, one of our most sacred traditional cultural properties." He said that the Havasupai Tribal Council would appeal the decision.

Cleaning Up Contamination? Next to Impossible

The Havasupai tribe had joined a coalition of conservation groups, including the Grand Canyon Trust, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Sierra Club, to challenge a decision by the U.S. Forest Service to permit Energy Fuels Inc. (TSX:EFR), a Canadian mining firm that develops uranium and vanadium properties in the U.S., to reopen the mine without formally consulting with tribal authorities or updating an obsolete federal environmental review that is nearly 30 years old. The coalition warns that the mining operation threatens wildlife, including endangered species such as the California condor, as well as tribal cultural values. Toxic uranium mining waste, they say, can contaminate the aquifers and streams that maintain the Grand Canyon and Colorado River. Geologists have warned that cleaning up such contamination would be "next to impossible." The aquifers that feed the Grand Canyon are located thousands of feet below the surface.

Steve Martin, former superintendent of the Grand Canyon National Park, said, “Uranium is a special concern because it is both a toxic heavy metal and a source of radiation. I worry about uranium escaping into the local water because more than a third of the canyon’s species would be affected if water quality suffered.”

According to a 2011 Environment America report "Grand Canyon at Risk: Uranium Mining Doesn’t Belong Near Our National Treasures":

Uranium mining — which often requires vast open pits, spreads radioactive dust through the air, and leaks radioactivity and toxic chemicals into the environment — is among the riskiest industrial activities in the world. Every uranium mine ever operated in the United States has required some degree of toxic waste cleanup, and the worst have sickened dozens of people, contaminated miles of rivers and streams, and required the cleanup of hundreds of acres of land. After several decades of reduced activity due to depressed prices, uranium mining is making a comeback — including on the edges of one of our nation’s most treasured wild places, the Grand Canyon. Uranium mining has left a toxic trail across the West — including at the Grand Canyon itself. To protect this national treasure, and the millions of people who visit it each year, mining should be prohibited on land near Grand Canyon National Park, and other treasured places. Uranium mining is risky for miners, local residents and the environment. Mines can release uranium itself — a dangerous radioactive substance — or toxic chemicals used in the mining process.

"This is bad news for protecting Grand Canyon and tribal sacred sites," said Roger Clark of the Grand Canyon Trust, a nonprofit group dedicated to Grand Canyon and Colorado Plateau conservation and environmental advocacy. "Over the last two decades, we’ve learned how uranium mining can pollute aquifers that feed canyon springs and Havasu Falls. But the Forest Service has ignored that information and failed to require Energy Fuels to take reasonable steps to prevent contamination of water, sacred sites and public lands."

U.S. Government vs. First Nations

The plaintiffs in the suit argued that the Forest Service violated the National Historic Preservation Act by failing to consult with tribes regarding potential negative impacts of the Canyon Mine on Red Butte. In addition, the conservation groups attest that the decision endangers the “Red Butte Traditional Cultural Property,” which the Forest Service designated in 2010 for its religious and cultural importance to several tribes — in particular the Havasupai, an indigenous American tribe that has called the Grand Canyon home for some 800 years.

Uranium mining is a unique part of a long and troubled history between the U.S. government and America's indigenous tribes. "The historic legacy of radioactive contamination for Native peoples and lands relates to the longstanding U.S. policy to treat uranium production as a 'public good' intended to serve the country’s interest in national security," writes Arizona State University law professor Rebecca Tsoisie in her recent paper, "Indigenous Peoples and the Ethics of Remediation," published in the Santa Clara Journal of International Law. That policy, says Tsoisie, "affected many reservations and adjacent lands, which resulted in contamination of land, water, and natural resources, including fish." She notes that over four decades, starting in the 1940s, mining firms extracted some 4 million tons of ore from the Navajo Nation reservation alone. "By the 1970s," she writes, "the radioactive tailings from the uranium mines had contaminated air, groundwater, streams, and soil on the Navajo reservation."

In 2012, then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar issued a 20-year ban that prohibits new mining claims and mine development on existing claims without valid permits, protecting some 1 million acres around the Grand Canyon — an area that continues to be plagued by decommissioned uranium mines. "We are still recovering from the last uranium rush which poisoned so much water it’ll take generations to clean up,” said Clark. But Energy Fuels and its allies argue that since the Canyon Mining plan was first approved by the Forest Service in 1986, the 2012 ban should not apply.

Calling on President Obama: It's Not Too Late

“We will continue to fight to protect Grand Canyon, its waters and its watershed,” said Sandy Bahr, director of Sierra Club's Grand Canyon Chapter. “The Forest Service should consider the harm this mine could cause to the groundwater and ultimately the waters in Grand Canyon National Park. We are extremely disappointed in the judge's failure to recognize that.”

Margie Alt, the executive director of Environment America, offered harsh criticism of Judge Campbell's ruling, saying in an email that "letting mining operations set up shop next to the Grand Canyon...just doesn't make sense." In a separate email, she characterized the decision as "beyond unacceptable."

However, Alt also noted that it is not too late to stop it. President Obama can proclaim the Grand Canyon's watershed a national monument, through the authority granted the president by the Antiquities Act, which was enacted by President Theodore Roosevelt. Congress can also establish a national monument though legislation, but that would surely be a lengthy and contentious process.

"With the stroke of a pen, the president of the United States can protect natural, historical and cultural wonders by designating them as national monuments," notes the Wilderness Society. "National monument designation is a form of protection most like a National Conservation Area (NCA). National monuments are flexible designations that allow for a true conservation balance between development and the need to protect our most treasured places for our children and grandchildren."

Environment America has launched a petition urging President Obama to protect the Grand Canyon and its watershed from uranium mining by creating a new national monument — the Grand Canyon Watershed National Monument in Arizona.

This uranium project could haunt the Grand Canyon region for decades to come,” said Katie Davis with the Center for Biological Diversity. "Uranium mining leaves a highly toxic legacy that endangers human health, wildlife and the streams and aquifers that feed the Grand Canyon. It’s disappointing to see the Forest Service prioritizing the extraction industry over the long-term protection of a place as iconic as the Grand Canyon.”

By Reynard Loki

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