Limiting uranium mining in the Grand Canyon hasn’t been an easy political fight for Arizona residents, and Barack Obama’s presidency brought a mix of hope and missed opportunities to the battle. The former president in 2012 agreed to issue a 20-year-ban on uranium mining in the Grand Canyon, grandfathering in sites where work had already begun but killing companies' hopes of mining anywhere new in the region.
While the mining industry promptly sued the Obama administration and has been in court fighting the federal government ever since, Native American tribes and some lawmakers pushed the administration to go even further to protect the area's environment.
Had Obama made the Grand Canyon a national monument, as environmentalists petitioned him to do, mining and other heavy industrial activity would have been permanently banned from the region, activists said. But residents got word during Obama’s final days in office that he would not give the Grand Canyon that special monument status.
“I can only express my profound disappointment,” Rep. Raul Grijalva, a Democrat from Arizona, said in reaction to the news.
Now energy interests, still fighting to overturn the current mining ban in the Grand Canyon, are hoping to benefit from the Trump administration's pro-industrialization of national parks stance. They see hope in not just the Grand Canyon but in public land where Trump, in an unprecedented move, is considering stripping away national monument protections that have already been granted by previous presidents.
Revoking a monument's protections?
President Teddy Roosevelt’s Antiquities Act gave presidents the authority to declare land and waters as national monuments, a designation that people assumed was permanent. But Trump in late April signed an Executive Order asking his secretary of interior to review 30 national monuments and decide if any should be “rescinded, modified or resized.”
Conservation groups argue that presidents don’t have the authority to “rescind” or “resize” land that has already been made a monument by past administrations. “We're prepared, and others are prepared, to challenge any revoking of any of the monuments established by Obama, Clinton or Bush,” says Roger Clark, a director at Grand Canyon Trust, a conservation group that aims to keep uranium mining and other industrial activity out of the Grand Canyon.
“We contend that there’s no legal authority to rescind monuments once they've been established,” Clark tells ConsumerAffairs.
The administration is framing its review of monuments as a small government vs. big government issue, and they say that regular citizens will benefit from opening up more protected land.
“In some cases national monuments have resulted in the loss of jobs, reduced wages and loss of public access,” Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke told reporters earlier this year. “We feel the public, the people the monuments affect, should be considered and given a meaningful voice.”
But it was the American Petroleum Institute, the major trade group representing oil and gas interests, that originally suggested this year that lawmakers “re-examine the role and purpose of the Antiquities Act,” according to a letter the API sent Congress in January.
“Many of our members explore for and produce oil and natural gas resources on federal offshore and onshore lands,” the group said, before going on to criticize the outgoing administration for adding new sites to the monument list.
“President Obama’s large designations under the Antiquities Act and suggestions of additional withdrawals before his term in office expires, present a threat to balanced management of America’s non-park, non-wilderness public lands onshore and offshore,” the API wrote.
Bears Ears faces shrinking proposal
While Obama had declined to make the Grand Canyon a national monument, he did agree, at the urging of tribes and environmental groups, to protect approximately 265 million acres of land at other sites during his tenure. In his final days in office, Obama gave Antiquities Act protections to a controversial site in Utah called Bears Ears. The site consists of a pair of mesas and a vast landscape that a coalition of five different Native American tribes had lobbied for years to protect.
Gavin Noyes, who helped draft the initial proposal to make Bears Ears a national monument in 2013, described the site in an interview in NPR “one of the wildest, most intact landscapes in Utah."
But the energy industry sees it differently. At least six companies have reportedly explored Bears Ears for natural gas before Obama made it a monument. And the American Petroleum Institute, while not calling out Bears Ears specifically, is among the many oil and gas interests that have a friendly relationship with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.
On June 12, Zinke released a proposal to significantly scale back the amount of land considered a monument at Bears Ears. The exact dimensions at this new, theoretical smaller monument in Utah are not clear. The plans are not yet finalized, as Zinke is expected to make a determination on two dozen other monuments by the end of August.
Overturning the uranium mining moratorium in Grand Canyon
With more monuments potentially on the chopping block as an August deadline for Zinke’s report looms, officials who support uranium mining in the Grand Canyon are beginning to make a new public push for overturning the two-decade ban put in place by Obama. This month the Mohave County Board of Supervisors sent a letter to Zinke expressing support for adding new mines in the Grand Canyon, claiming that “this ban took away much needed growth and jobs from our area.”
Among those who would be poised to benefit from lifting the moratorium is Energy Fuel Resources, a mining company that dominates uranium reserves in the Grand Canyon region. The company’s Canyon Mine at the bottom of the Grand Canyon first broke ground in 1986, when it was under the control of a Canadian company, but tumbling uranium prices caused the original owners to abandon the site.
New owners Energy Fuel Resources have tried to reopen the site in recent years, but they have been stalled in the courts by the Havasupai, the tribe who lives near the site and has led much of the effort to stop mining in the Canyon. Work on the mine came to a halt again in March when the site began filling with water.
“Energy Fuels supports lifting the withdrawal, as it needlessly cuts off access to the best uranium deposits in the U.S,” the company writes to ConsumerAffairs via email.
But they add that they have the authority to continue working as they please on the Canyon Mine, whether or not the current moratorium is lifted. “...whether the withdrawal is lifted or not, the Canyon Mine is grandfathered-in – President Obama’s Interior Secretary at the time the withdrawal was placed into effect (Mr. Ken Salazar) stated that up to 8 uranium mines could proceed under the withdrawal, including the Canyon Mine," the company says.
Research suggests water contamination from uranium mining in canyon
Tribal and conservation groups trying to fight new mining projects point to a study released by the U.S. Geological Survey in 2010 which found that areas near former mining sites in the Grand Canyon have elevated levels of uranium in the water.
Roger Clark, the director at Grand Canyon Trust, adds that uranium mines in Arizona are not required to install monitoring wells up or downstream from their operations, something he says is considered a “best practice” in the industry and is required by other mining operators.
Uranium at mines near the Grand Canyon "could have easily spread and seeped into the aquifer and contaminate the aquifer...but we don't know because the agencies do not require these mines to have monitoring wells,” Clark says.
Energy Fuel Resources spokesman Curtis Moore responds to ConsumerAffairs that monitoring wells are unnecessary. “We can assure the Havasupai Tribe and all members of the public that our Canyon Mine is in full compliance with all applicable federal, state, and local laws and regulations, including those governing air and water monitoring,” he says via email. “Installing additional monitoring (as you suggest) is costly, unnecessary, and not required by any government law, regulation or agency."
Moore additionally claims that “the federal government has not linked modern natural uranium mining with water contamination in the Grand Canyon,” arguing that the 2010 U.S. Geological Survey report that detected uranium in water did not conclusively blame modern mining operations as the culprit. The report, he added, “is confusingly written…. At worst (for us), the USGS report is inconclusive.”
Conservation groups like the Grand Canyon Trust and Center for Biological Diversity, meanwhile, argue that the US Geological Survey’s research is strong enough to make a case against any further mining of the region.“These reports demonstrate unequivocally that uranium mining should not proceed in these environmentally sensitive lands,” the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon chapter said at the time.