Uranium Mining Ramps Up In The Grand Canyon National Monument

The Grand Canyon region has been hit with a fresh wave of mining for uranium, the heavy metal used in the production of nuclear fuel and atomic bombs. Plundering this land for radioactive resources has proved particularly controversial since some of the activity will occur within protected Native American homelands – despite recent reassurance it would be safeguarded from uranium mining. 

Energy Fuels, the largest uranium producer in the US, announced in December 2023 that they have “commenced uranium production” in three mines, including the Pinyon Plain Mine (aka Canyon Mine) in Arizona near the entrance of the Grand Canyon’s South Rim.

The mine sits within the boundary of Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni – Ancestral Footprints of the Grand Canyon National Monument, a protected space that was designated in August 2023 to protect the Native homelands from uranium mining. However, Energy Fuels was allowed to move forward with their mining plans because they had existing rights. 

The Havasupai Tribe, the Grand Canyon Trust, and many other groups had attempted to stop activity at Pinyon Plain Mine from moving forward using legal challenges, but a court ruling in February 2022 upheld the view that the miners had valid existing rights.

Within the past few months, mining for uranium continued at the Pinyon Plain Mine, which hasn’t seen activity in many years. 

“It is with heavy hearts that we must acknowledge that our greatest fear has come true,” the Havasupai Tribe said in a statement in January 2024. 

“Our tribal community’s only source of water is fed by aquifers, which unfortunately sit directly below the Pinyon Plain Mine. The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality and the federal EPA claim there is no danger to us, that no harmful effects will come our way from this alleged ‘clean energy’ source,” the statement continues.

“But how can they so confidently make such a claim when Energy Fuels has already contaminated one of the two aquifers while digging the mine shaft, which then led to the company spraying toxic water into the air, only to be spread to the precious plants and animals by the blowing winds,” they added. 

This view is backed up by peer-reviewed research on mining in the Grand Canyon, which concluded: “contaminants, either from land-surface or subsurface sources, are likely to be transported into the deep aquifer, which is the primary source of South Rim springs and drinking water wells.”

Around 738,901 kilograms (1,629,000 pounds) of triuranium octoxide (U3O8), a compound of uranium, is found beneath the Pinyon Plain Mine. Much of the renewed interest to mine here is being driven by governments upping their nuclear power production to achieve zero-carbon targets, as well as recent bans to prohibit importing uranium from Russia. 

To ensure this uranium is sourced safely and with consent, members of five Native American tribes testified before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in February 2024, citing historical evidence that past mining activities dramatically impacted Native American communities such as the Navajo People.

If lessons aren’t learned from the past, they argue, the US is doomed to make the same mistakes again. 

“We have a choice in front of us. Allowing the Pinyon Plain mine to proceed is subjecting this landscape and its interconnected waters to a legacy of devastation and disregarding the rights of the Indigenous peoples on the land,” Sanober Mirza, Arizona program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association, said in a January statement.

“Or we can choose a different path – one that holds a promise of protecting the Grand Canyon’s cultural sanctity, its people and natural resources,” said Mirza.

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