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A new uranium mine has opened near the Grand Canyon. What this means for tribal lands

Grand Canyon National Park
Maria Springs/KJZZ
editorial | staff |
The Grand Canyon.

Coverage of tribal natural resources is supported in part by Catena Foundation

A federal ban has prohibited uranium mining around the Grand Canyon for years. But now, a new mine has begun operations just seven miles south of Grand Canyon National Park. 

The Pinyon Plain mine comes in response to demand. The U.S. is trying to boost domestic production of uranium, which is needed for nuclear energy, and to lead us away from dependence on fossil fuels. 

But, the Havasupai Tribe has long opposed the mine. They say it could contaminate their only source of water and damage cultural sites. It also lies within a new national monument designated in the area by President Joe Biden last year. 

The Show spoke with Maanvi Singh, west coast reporter for the Guardian, about what this all means.

LAUREN GILGER: Good morning, Maanvi.

MAANVI  SINGH: Good morning. Thanks so much for having me.

GILGER: Thanks for coming on. So, OK, we've got uranium mining in the area that hasn't been allowed for years and that it's the fact that this is within the boundaries of this new national monument the president designated just last year. How did this mine come to be? How is it going?

SINGH: Yeah, so this is this mine has had a lot of opposition. And when Joe Biden designated the area around the Grand Canyon last year, it did you know, stop new mines from coming up. But because of this Gold Rush-era mining law that still governs the way we do mining today, the Monument Declaration did not negate this company's claim to the mine because mines that were under development prior to the declaration were exempted from the ban.

GILGER: OK. So tell us more about the concerns from the Havasupai tribe in particular. What have they been saying? How, why have they been fighting this for decades?

SINGH: So these are their ancestral lands that were taken from them and the mine is right up against two of their most sacred sites. And on top of that, they and environmentalists in the region are really concerned that if anything goes wrong at the mine, it's gonna contaminate their aquifer, which is their sole source of water in a very arid region where water is scarce. And then separately, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe is concerned about air pollution from a nearby mill facility where this uranium is going to be taken and processed?

GILGER: OK. Are those claims verified? Like what does the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality say?

SINGH: Yeah, so there's some disagreement here. Energy Fuels Inc the company that's, you know, doing this mine. They say that there is no scientific evidence that the aquifer is at risk. And the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality says that they have reviewed years of data including from the geological survey and they have determined that the layers of rock between the mine and the aquifer are impermeable. So they're saying there's no risk of contamination.

GILGER: You quoted one tribal member in your story though about this, who said that they all kind of knew this might eventually happen. Why did she say that?

SINGH: You know, she Carletta Tilousi, who I interviewed, she was a formal former council member and she's been fighting against this mine for years. She said, you know, they've been fighting for generations. So the generation before her was also fighting uranium in the region, and they kind of just saw this as an inevitability. They fought really hard against it but they're up against, you know, this 1872 mining law and just really the way the structure around this is set up is really, it makes it really difficult for tribes to, to fight, you know, these mine constructions or even have really input on how it's done. 

GILGER: And there are sort of, there's a lot of this around that area, right? Like there are abandoned mines, tainted aquifers all over that region.

SINGH: Yeah. So that's where it really, you know, that's where the Havasupai are really sort of skeptical. So they're like, OK, you're saying this is safe, you're saying that the science backs you up here, but we've been burned before and really like uranium mining in the 20th century has this really dark shameful legacy of destroying indigenous communities in the Southwest. You know, uranium mining littered the Navajo Nation with just abandoned mines, and it really exploited and then abandoned this generation of Dine workers and their families who now are still dealing with like this legacy of lung cancer and other illness. So there's like a lot of, there's a lack of trust there.

GILGER: Tell us about the the global demands here, like the broader picture in terms of uranium. Uranium prices were down for years, there was not a lot of demand. Now there is, this has to do with Cop28.

SINGH: Yeah, so, I mean, in general, it has to do with this you know, desire to transition away from fossil fuels and to address the climate crisis. At Cop28 there was an agreement, the U.S. was a part of to triple nuclear energy production as a means to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. So that's boosted demand. And there's this other factor which is you know, since Russia invaded Ukraine, there's this desire to kind of move away from Russia as a source of uranium and that's really a country that's dominated the industry. And so now the U.S. is really wanting to make more of it.

GILGER: Are we expecting you think to see more of this on the horizon? More battles like this over these kinds of minds because you know, this desire for a clean energy future isn't going away.

SINGH: Yeah, that's, that's kind of a big one. It's not just uranium, but also cobalt, copper. You know, we're really going to need these minerals in order to make that green energy transition. And really what I heard from the Havasupai and just environmentalists in the region is like, yes, we do want to address the climate crisis. We agree that there needs to be a transition. But in making that transition, we really don't want to repeat the mistakes of the past. We don't want to repeat the mistakes of the fossil fuel industry or, you know, we want to be consulted. We want to be part of the decision making process and maybe reform this really outdated law.

GILGER: Yeah. All right, we'll leave it there. Maanvi Singh, West Coast reporter for the Guardian, joining us to talk more about this uranium mine near the Grand Canyon. Maanvi, thank you for coming on. I appreciate it.

SINGH: Thank you.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.