We don't need new uranium mining in the Grand Canyon. Let's ban it for good
Opinion: There is no reason to prop up the uranium industry. It doesn't need or deserve government handouts, and it carries health and environmental risks.
This year is the 100th anniversary of the establishment of Grand Canyon National Park. Even with former fossil fuel lobbyists in charge of Trump administration environmental policy, this should be a time to celebrate.
Instead, the administration is considering whether to open this internationally iconic landmark to new uranium mining claims. The president recently classified uranium as a “critical mineral,” despite it not matching the definition of the term.
Opening protected land to the industry, as influential mining and political figures are urging him to do regardless of the public health or environmental risks, would be a logical next step.
Vote to stop mining comes this week
The latest fight over the future of the Grand Canyon started in 2012 when, in a move I had proposed since 2008, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar put a 20-year pause on new uranium mining claims on about 1 million acres of federally protected land around Grand Canyon National Park.
Conservation agencies needed, and still need, time to study the health and environmental risks of allowing uranium mining to continue (or even expand) in such a sensitive region.
Fossil fuel corporations and their allies in Congress are pushing the president to end that moratorium now, more than a decade ahead of schedule. I’m calling on my colleagues in Congress, and the American people, to unite in support of Grand Canyon protections until President Donald Trump declares it off limits for the long term.
The House is voting this week on my bill, the Grand Canyon Centennial Protection Act, to make the moratorium permanent. If it passes, as I hope it will, the Senate should take it up and say no to this blatant act of corporate welfare once and for all.
The uranium contamination risk is real
The park itself, a wonder of the world and a crown jewel of the national park system, is not the only place at risk. About 40 million people rely on water from the Colorado River, which flows through parts of five states and whose watershed includes two more.
Salazar’s order was based on well-founded, scientifically supported concerns that uranium mining could harm people across the Southwest and contaminate the habitats that wildlife have relied on for millennia to survive.
The moratorium has been upheld twice by federal courts, despite the industry’s best efforts to overturn it. (The National Mining Association, in a truly incredible legal filing, called conservation science to date “overly cautious.”) The risk is real, and our public interest in protecting ourselves from potentially serious impacts is legitimate.
Meanwhile, whatever your political philosophy, there is simply no reason to prop up the uranium industry. We have no domestic uranium shortfall, and our supply chain is perfectly stable. The price of uranium is low, and the business case for more uranium mining — at least without massive federal subsidies at taxpayer expense — does not exist. Uranium cheerleaders tend to gloss over these issues, but that doesn’t make them less relevant.
Industry doesn't need a handout
Unfortunately, the Trump administration is run by people like Andrew Wheeler, the administrator at the Environmental Protection Agency, who was a paid lobbyist for a firm that represents uranium heavyweight Energy Fuels Resources until he joined the federal government.
Perhaps even more worrisome is William Perry Pendley, the acting director of the Bureau of Land Management, who was the president of a legal firm that sued the federal government in 2012 on behalf of the Northwest Mining Association, which sought to overturn the Grand Canyon moratorium, before he joined the Trump administration.
Today’s uranium campaign is not, and has never been, about legitimate or widespread public interest in more uranium mining. Even the conservative Heritage Foundation, with which I don’t often agree, has called the push an indefensible giveaway to a few well-connected interests.
We shouldn’t kid ourselves about the human costs of uranium exposure. On Oct. 2, I held a public forum on the Navajo Nation in northern Arizona to discuss the industry’s toxic legacy. While the country looked the other way, generations of Navajo uranium miners — some of whom I met with and heard from directly — were left without health care benefits as they suffered from unusually high cancer rates.
The Havasupai Tribe lives at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, primarily in the village of Supai. The Navajo’s experiences with uranium were traumatic enough for the tribal government, and many individual tribal members, to warn the Havasupai that they don’t want to end up the same way.
That’s a message we should all take to heart as we consider how to respond to an industry that doesn’t need, or frankly deserve, fresh government handouts.
Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva, D-Ariz., is chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources. Follow him on Twitter: RepRaulGrijalva