Uranium mining at the Grand Canyon: environmental threat or critical for US security?

Yoana Cholteeva 27 April 2020 (Last Updated April 24th, 2020 16:29)

The US is contemplating an end to any new uranium mining near the Grand Canyon, Arizona, and the extension of a temporary ban put in place in 2012. While the environmental benefits will be substantial, the law could severely impact the country’s uranium mining prospects. Yoana Cholteeva considers the issues surrounding the ban.

Uranium mining at the Grand Canyon: environmental threat or critical for US security?
View over the Grand Canyon; uranium is not mined in the UNESCO World Heritage Site itself, but lands around the Canyon may be made open again for new claims to be staked. Credit: Courtesy of Christine Lorraine Mankowski

A temporary ban for new uranium exploration in the Grand Canyon area was put in place in 2012, but did not affect existing mine permits, including the Canyon Mine, located southeast of Tusayan which is currently being developed.

The ban was introduced by former US Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to protect the Grand Canyon’s watershed from the adverse effects of extracting minerals. Another major factor was concerns over the health and wellbeing of the local Navajo people, one of the largest tribes of Native Americans inhabiting the area.

The aim of the temporary ban was to allow the government time to conduct conclusive studies about the effects of uranium mining in the area, but in the time since it was put in place, the US Geological Survey, which was charged with the research, didn’t obtain adequate data because of a lack of funding.

On 31 October 2019, the US House passed a bill that would extend the temporary ban and completely prohibit new uranium mines on about one million acres around the Grand Canyon. At the time of writing, the bill is still awaiting approval by the Republican-controlled Senate before being passed on to the president.

The environmental harm posed by uranium mining

The US Environmental Protection Agency has shown that the leftover materials from uranium mines are hazardous to human, animals and ecosystems more broadly. The agency has also said that radioactive dust from tailings can blow into towns and onto surface water, posing a risk of uranium contamination to groundwater. In addition, miners and residents living close to mines could suffer from elevated cancer rates, birth defects, and other health conditions.

Roger Clark, programme director of the Grand Canyon Trust, said in an article by the Arizonian publication azcentral that radiation from the now-closed Orphan Mine below the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, abandoned in 1969, contaminated even the metal from old equipment, which had to be disposed of.

Despite the government spending more than $15m to clean up the site, hikers are still warned against drinking water from Horn Creek and Salt Creek, located downstream from the mine.

There are also fears for the Canyon’s 2,000-plus animal and plant species, some of which are endangered or endemic to the area.

Amber Reimondo, energy programme director of the Grand Canyon Trust, has previously called uranium mining near the Grand Canyon “an unnecessary gamble of a sacred landscape, a worldwide wonder and a primary driver of the Northern Arizona economy,” as reported by the Centre for Biological Diversity, a US conservation organisation.

Tourism is another reason that turns locals against uranium mining. With more than 9,000 jobs and $938m in annual receipts generated in the region, and $160m going into the state and local government, citizens are concerned that any environmental degradation caused by increased mining activity will negatively impact this lucrative sector.

People in favour of the ban now fear that even if the bill reaches Donald Trump’s desk, it’s unlikely he’ll sign it, based on his recent comments on the White House website, where he announced the implementation of polices to “increase energy production and advance energy independence.”

Are environmental concerns justified?

Energy Fuels (one of the companies seeking to mine in the area) marketing and corporate development vice president Curtis Moore says that activist groups have unsuccessfully tried numerous times to overturn the Canyon mine licenses in court, but the mine is fully licensed and in compliance with all permits.

“The facility is heavily regulated by an array of federal and state agencies, including the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, the US Environmental Protection Agency, and US Forest Service,” he says.

Asked about the risks uranium mining poses to the environment and the locals, Moore explains that modern uranium mining is nothing like it used to be: “it’s done in a highly regulated, responsible manner that is fully protective of human health and the environment.”

He also adds that, “The last ‘breccia pipe’ (a rock composed of broken fragments of minerals) deposit to cause contamination was an old copper mine inside the Grand Canyon that started production 130 years ago.

“This is the only documented case of a breccia pipe mine in the area causing environmental contamination. Needless to say, a lot has changed since then, and the activists have no credibility on this issue,” he claims.

Instead, Moore emphasises the threats which uranium exploration decline is posing to the local mining industry. While both miners and operators are awaiting the “reinvigoration” of the industry and the implementation of polices to advance energy independence, mining infrastructure is collapsing.

“Just this month [January 2020], there have been dozens more uranium workers laid-off, and the largest licensed uranium mine in the U.S. [Mount Taylor in New Mexico] announced that it is being reclaimed and closed forever,” Moore says.

“In 2020, US uranium production will essentially be zero for the first time since before World War II,” he concludes.

Will banning uranium mining jeopardise energy security?

As 20% of all the energy the US uses is generated by nuclear power, the main element needed for nuclear stations – uranium – has become essential.

Uranium is also crucial to businesses and the military, such that, without indigenous mines, relying on imports could pose a substantial risk to the security and functionality of the country.

In 2018, the Interior Department officially listed uranium as a critical mineral, and the Department of Commerce (DOC) began researching the feasibility of imposing import quotas and domestic purchasing requirements on firms within the nation.

During that same time, Energy Fuels and Ur-Energy filed what is known as a Petition for relief under section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act, requesting that the government investigate whether imported uranium from outside US is a threat to national security.

The DOC submitted their report and recommendations to President Trump in April 2019.

Energy Fuels, marketing and corporate development vice president Curtis Moore says: “We believe the report says that the DOC found that uranium imports were having an adverse effect on US national security, and we believe they recommended that Trump takes action to address the problem.”

“We’ve asked to see a copy of the report; however, the Trump administration has been keeping it confidential for some unknown reason.”

Waiting on the government greenlight

With the US currently importing 93% of all its commercial uranium, including 75% from four countries: Canada, Kazakhstan, Australia and Russia, producers also asked for uranium import limits.

At the time of writing, Trump’s administration declined to impose import limits, but voiced concerns over national security, and established the US Nuclear Fuel Working Group to review the state of US nuclear fuel.

Operators have not seen any further government action to date, but there is a distinct possibility of the administration greenlighting new uranium mines as a result of the inquiry.

While increased uranium exploration near the Grand Canyon could pose contamination risks, banning an already diminishing industry could harm the country’s energy security. The seriousness of each charge remains to be proven but what is clear is that some important decisions need to be made about the future of the US uranium industry and the interests of the inhabitants of the area.