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Native American group successfully challenges Grand Canyon uranium mine

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Last week, Ben Adler of Grist reported on the prevalence of North American Native American groups opposing oil and gas extraction and infrastructure development. In particular, Adler noted First Nations’ opposition to proposed oil pipelines that would travel through tribal lands in Western Canada; as well as the efforts of a 3 tribe federation in North Dakota to “protect their community from the effects of oil exploration.” This is in addition to Native American participation in the opposition to construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.

At the risk of participating in a Jack Shafer-approved “bogus trend” story, Adler’s reporting can be built upon by adding Arizona’s Havasupai Tribe to the milieu. While Adler focused primarily upon various tribal initiatives to oppose oil and gas related activities, the Havasupai have been engaged for years in an ongoing campaign to prevent uranium mining in the vicinity of Grand Canyon National Park. Similar to the examples Adler cites, the Havasupai are attempting to protect their community from the deleterious environmental impacts of natural resource extraction.

As announced in a joint press release issued last month by a coalition of conservation groups* and the Havasupai Tribe, operations at the Canyon uranium mine have been temporarily suspended – pursuant to an agreement with the mine’s operator, Energy Fuels Resources, Inc. The agreement follows a March 2012 lawsuit, where the Havasupai Tribe and conservation groups sued the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) – arguing that USFS should have consulted with the tribe and issued an updated environmental review prior to permitting the mine to resume operations. Specifically, the plaintiffs contended that the mine “threatens cultural values, wildlife, and water, including aquifers feeding [the] Grand Canyon’s springs.”

(*The conservation groups opposing the mine for environmental reasons include: the Grand Canyon Trust, the Center for Biological Diversity, and the Sierra Club.)

Originally approved in 1986 and located in Kaibab National Forest (6 miles south of Grand Canyon National Park), the Canyon Mine has been the subject of protests and lawsuits from its inception. Previously, the mine was closed from 1992 until the USFS determined, in April 2012, that Energy Fuels had a “valid existing right” to operate the Canyon Mine. In April 2013, operations at the mine were renewed, preparing the site for uranium ore excavation.

The impacts of prior exploratory drilling included groundwater withdrawals estimated at 1.3 million gallons per year and uranium contamination of groundwater in excess of EPA drinking water standards.

Both the 1992 and 2013 closures were occasioned by plummeting market prices for uranium ore, rather than substantive legal victories for the Havasupai Tribe and the other plaintiffs. The primary civilian sector use for uranium is nuclear power. Given post-Fukushima attitudes toward new nuclear plants, sinking uranium prices and an unsure market come as no surprise.

Notwithstanding the economic rationale driving the agreement to halt production at the Grand Canyon Mine, the environmental concerns raised by the project are significant and provide an alternative, meritorious rationale for ceasing active operations at the mine. Looking forward, a sound resource extraction policy ought to exclude projects located in close proximity to nationally important areas such as the Grand Canyon; as well as projects sited near culturally important Native American lands. In addition, in the arid Southwestern U.S., extraction activities that draw down scarce water resources and/or threaten to contaminate water supplies should engender enhanced scrutiny before approval.



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