Photo: Fred Rhoades III / Flickr

Last month, the U.S. Forest Service recommended to President Donald Trump that he re-open lands outside the Grand Canyon to uranium mining, just five years after former President Barack Obama introduced a 20-year ban on new uranium mining on roughly one million acres of surrounding public lands.

Obama’s ban allowed a handful of mines that had already staked their claims to move forward, but the Canyon Mine, located outside the Grand Canyon’s south rim, is the only one that’s begun operations. While some obstacles have kept mining company Energy Fuels from actually extracting uranium ore, local environmental and indigenous activists have been trying to convince the government to shut it down because they are worried about negative health and environmental impacts—and now their worries are compounded by the prospect of renewed mining.

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Uranium, a radioactive element used to produce nuclear power and nuclear weapons, occurs naturally, but too much exposure (through drinking water, the air, or even skin) can be toxic.

Even government officials are trying to prevent more mining. Rep. Raúl Grijalva, a member of the House Committee on Natural Resources, wrote two letters last Friday to establish the Greater Grand Canyon into a heritage national monument. He wants to see that 20-year moratorium become permanent and protect the surrounding land forever.

In a letter to Committee Chairman Rob Bishop, Grijalva writes:

Rescinding the existing withdrawal, after only five years and without scientific or public review, would be irresponsible and threaten a watershed that provides drinking water to more than 20 million Americans. In addition to providing critical ecosystem services, the Grand Canyon contains a tremendous array of cultural resources and is sacred to Native Americans throughout the region.

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One of those Native American groups is the Havasupai Tribe. While tourists frequent the red canyons to swim in blue and green waters, these waters represent home for the Havasupai Tribe.

The Havasu Creek’s waters run a bright turquoise and are the basis for the tribe’s name: “Havasupai” translates to “people of the blue-green waters” in the region’s Pai languages. The tribe’s 700 members sit isolated from the world in the Supai Village, an eight-mile hike outside the Grand Canyon.

A man riding a horse through Supai Village, Arizona. Photo Courtesy Sarana Riggs

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“The Havasu Creek that runs through Supai Village not only sustains the tribal members to live in Supai,” said Carletta Tilousi, a tribal council member of the Havasupai Tribe, to Earther. “It also provides life through our ceremonial uses of the water.”

The Havasupai use the water for sweat lodges, ceremonial cleanses in the home, and, of course, for drinking. They already feel threatened by the Canyon Mine.

The Havasupai and environmental groups like the Grand Canyon Trust and Center for Biological Diversity filed an ongoing lawsuit in 2013 against Energy Fuels and the Forest Service arguing the Canyon Mine threatens the tribe’s natural resources, as well as its historic and sacred sites. 

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In short, activists have been super preoccupied with this one project. They’re expecting to be much busier if these lands are opened up to more mining.

“The tribe has fought very hard for over 35 years to prevent this mine from happening,” Tilousi said. “The battle is not over.”

The Forest Service told Earther in an emailed statement that this recommendation remains just that, a recommendation, and that there is no plan to re-open the lands. Energy Fuels, on the other hand, told Earther in a emailed statement that it shares the concerns of local Native American groups.

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“Their concerns are based on an unfortunate historic legacy in the Four Corners Region that resulted from essentially unregulated uranium mining that occurred about 50-75 years ago,” said Curtis Moore, Energy Fuels VP of Marketing, in the email. “Indeed, even though we had nothing to do with those past problems, Energy Fuels is seeking to be a part of the solution to cleaning them up.”

Still, Tilousi worries about her people’s health and their sole water source. She’s seen that historic legacy Moore mentioned up close and what it’s done to her neighbors in the Navajo Nation: increased lung cancer deaths, contaminated drinking water, increased chance of kidney failure, and more.

“The United States government needs to learn from that,” Tilousi said.

Millions of tons of uranium came from the Navajo Nation Indian Reservation during the Cold War and the U.S. rush to build atomic weapons. Today, more than 500 mines remain abandoned on the land. Navajo people not only worked the mines from where the uranium originated; they also worked the mills that processed the radioactive element. Uranium eventually ended up in drinking water and homes.

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It became a public health disaster, one the Environmental Protection Agency is now responsible for cleaning up.

A Havasupai ceremony takes place in Supai Village, Arizona. Photo Courtesy Sarana Riggs

Sarana Riggs, the Native America volunteer coordinator and program coordinator for the Grand Canyon Trust, grew up on Navajo Nation. Her grandfather worked at a mill site after fighting in World War II, she told Earther. He lived there, too. So did her father and uncle.

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Her uncle told her stories of how he and her father would play on the mill’s conveyor belts and equipment as children, not realizing the danger. Riggs found this all out when he grandfather died of stomach cancer about 10 years ago.

“Everything about him was told to me on that day,” Riggs said. “About his involvement in the war, his involvement with the mill, and how he lived his life. Aside from that, there’s countless other people out there.”

The Navajo Nation suffered—and continues to suffer—at the hands of the U.S. government and its failure to inform them of the dangers around uranium mining. Now, its dangers are well-known. It’s no secret.

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Mining companies like to say things have changed, said Amber Reimondo, who works with Riggs at the Grand Canyon Trust, to Earther. It’s true, Moore told Earther that regulations have improved since the 1940s and so have mining practices. Organizers want more than words and assurances, though. They want proof. They know what’s at risk if companies are wrong.

That’s why they asked for the moratorium in the first place. Twenty years gives researchers and mining companies enough time to know how current mining operations can impact the land and the people who depend on it. Why speculate, Reimondo asks.

“Without those 20 years, if the moratorium goes away,” she said, “then we’re foregoing getting more information, and we’re just going to go ahead and gamble that it’s going to be OK. And what we’re gambling is the Grand Canyon.”

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With that, the coalition that made the moratorium happen is coming together again. This time, to defend it and make sure that what happened to the Navajo Nation before doesn’t happen again.