What does the Grand Canyon have to do with skiing? Well nothing directly, but indirectly many snow sliding enthusiast like to Kayak and run rivers when the ski season ends! I’m an avid river runner and many of my ski friends enjoy a nice paddle during the summer months. The Grand Canyon happens to be the “holy grail” of rafting and kayaking! It’s unlike anything I have ever experienced and something everyone should witness in their life (and not from the rim of the canyon where Asian and European tourists give peace signs to the camera in front of the unbelievable backdrop). No. Go raft the river. IT WILL CHANGE YOUR LIFE
Currently the Grand Canyon of the Southwestern United States lies in the midst of a tense debate between mining companies and environmentalists. A recent boom in the price of uranium has skyrocketed the number of uranium mining claims staked in five states that surround the Grand Canyon. Mining companies and their sympathizers, contend that the uranium they seek will feed nuclear reactors that, unlike coal and natural gas, produce electrical power without emitting greenhouse gases and therefore without contributing to global climate change.
To learn more about this issue please read this paper I wrote while in University. Humans please comment, let’s hear your thoughts!
Uranium mining on the rim of the Grand Canyon
Through different eyes, some of the greatest wonders of the natural world are appreciated for entirely separate, and usually clashing, reasons. The Amazon rainforest to one is a vast source of timber and farmland waiting to be opened, while to another it is a biological masterpiece and wildlife safe haven. A fisherman might view the Great Barrier Reef as an extraordinarily lucrative fishing ground, but the conservationist sees it as a splendid ecosystem diminishing under the pressures of humanity. In a more specific case, the Grand Canyon of the Southwestern United States lies in the midst of a tense debate between mining companies and environmentalists. A recent boom in the price of uranium has skyrocketed the number of uranium mining claims staked in the five Southwestern states where the heavy metal is found. Colorado, Arizona, Utah, Wyoming, and New Mexico sit atop huge amounts of high-grade uranium and have also been the sites of this countries previous uranium booms. In theses states, however, there also exists some of the nations most treasured landscapes and National Parks amidst huge tracts of federally owned land that is subsequently open and inviting to mining under outdated law.
The popularity that the environmental movement gained in the 1960’s has brought America’s attention to these popular and breathtaking destinations, setting the stage for the ensuing lawsuit and heated conflict between conservation groups and mining companies.
The most popular, and arguably beautiful, of the protected lands within this unique desert landscape is Grand Canyon National Park split by the immense gorge of the canyon itself and flanked by more than one million acres of National Forest. It is here, just outside the national park boundaries, but well within the area’s ecological and aesthetic attractiveness, that the most new uranium mining claims have been made. In the vicinity of such a natural wonder that attracts five million visitors every year and is second in popularity only to The Great Smokey Mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee, environmental organizations maintain that uranium mining would prove ruinous to canyon wildlife and tourists alike (Pasternak). Mining companies and their sympathizers, on the other hand, contend that the uranium they seek will feed nuclear reactors that, unlike coal and natural gas, produce electrical power without emitting greenhouse gases and therefore without contributing to global climate change (Pasternak). This controversy between miners and conservationists seems inevitable whenever a new mine is proposed, however, it is unique in this instance that both parties have based their arguments on the claim of protecting the environment. In the age-old energy verse environment debate, it cannot be argued that nuclear power does not produce carbon dioxide, but among other adverse affects of uranium mining, are degraded water quality, radioactive effects on animals and humans, and the mere unsightliness of mines. These disturbances are too much for the likes of the Sierra Club, Grand Canyon Trust, and Center for Biological Diversity to ignore, especially on the fringes of Grand Canyon National Park, prompting a lawsuit once the Forest Service granted 39 permits for exploratory uranium drilling just miles from the popular national park (“Uranium Mining Threatens Grand Canyon, Local Communities.”). Although just one complaint has been filed in an attempt to protect what is viewed as the most precious of the encroached upon lands, numerous claims are dotting the outskirts of other western parklands such as, Arches National Park, Capitol Reef National Park, Canyonlands National Park, and within the proposed wilderness area of Dolores River Canyon (Pasternak).
The fever to find uranium in the Southwest is nothing new to the area and mining has left its mark various times in the past. Uranium booms have previously hit regions such as the Uravan Mineral Belt in southwestern Colorado once in the 1950’s and again the 1970’s (“Uranium”). The post World War II nuclear arms race spurred the first large uranium demand in the 1950’s, and nuclear energy prompted another in the seventies, however, as recycled uranium from decommissioned Soviet warheads flooded the market in the 1990’s prices, as well as demand, plummeted. The nuclear reactor disaster at Three Mile Island in 1979 also foreshadowed the drop in uranium demand (Arnoldy). In addition, as nations moved away from nuclear power and towards coal and natural gas, combined with the ever growing conservation movement, uranium prices until 2002 were kept to a mere nine dollars and seventy cents per pound (Pasternak). This shift away from Uranium exposed the environmental and health catastrophes of traditional hard-rock uranium mining. Just within the Uravan Mineral Belt numerous unreclaimed mines, radioactive runoff, a Superfund site, and an abandoned town of Uravan, was all left behind as huge mining corporations picked up and left 300 uranium mines in San Miguel county, Colorado, just as quickly as they had arrived (“Uranium”). Nearly two decades later, the world is unsettled by the proposition of human induced global warming, and once again a shift towards nuclear power is occurring. With this shift, uranium, the backbone of nuclear energy, is back in demand. According to the World Nuclear Association, more than 130 new nuclear power plants are being constructed around the globe as governments expand their use of nuclear energy to ease reliance on coal and natural gas. As a result, demand for uranium is forecasted to increase 25-50 percent over the next thirteen years (Burger). Mining companies have realized this trend and are jumping at the opportunity for their piece of the prosperous pie. In the mean time, uranium prices have increased fifteen-fold in the past eight years, now fetching 65 dollars per pound (McKinnon), resulting in 43,155 new mining claims in 2007 in the five western states where uranium is mined, as opposed to a mild 4,333 new claims filed in 2004 (Pasternak). In Colorado alone 3,500 new claims were staked in two years following 2004 when only 300 claims were made (Corrigan). Finally, more than 1,100 of these new claims, up from just 10 in 2003, occupy public lands within five miles of Grand Canyon National Park (Pasternak). These mind-boggling numbers demonstrate the kind of rush, nearly comparable to the historical gold rushes in Colorado and California, that the mining companies are in to begin extracting the precious heavy metal. The claims bordering the Grand Canyon, however, have gained the most attention from both the media and environmental groups. Contamination of the Colorado River and pollution of its scenery is only one concern of those opposed to mining, as Richard Wiles of the Environmental Working Group asks, “if you can’t stop mining at the Grand Canyon, where can you stop it” (Pasternak). It is this dogged conservation mindset that has prompted both new legislation and reform aimed at mining laws and permits to be introduced, as well as a lawsuit brought against the Forest Service to reconsider issuing exploratory Uranium drilling permits so close to the treasured Grand Canyon.
In the eyes of many, the resurgence of uranium mining in the Southwest United States poses a dangerous threat to both communities and revered wild areas. In the first place, it was the General Mining Law of 1872, designed to bring economic development and settlers to the west, which underlies the rampant mining claims throughout the region, and is only now being attacked by legislatures. According to the early Mining Act, mining companies can buy public lands for less than five dollars an acre and operate on those lands without paying a royalty if a “locatable” mineral is within the land, and the land is not withdrawn (McClure & Schneider). Reform of this outdated law looks to grant the Secretary of the Interior the right to stop a mining project, while under the existing law only the Department of the Interior approves or rejects mining operations after a case-by-case analysis to protect the environment (“Mining Near Grand Canyon a Radioactive Prospect”). Conservationists are obviously behind this reform measure because one more opportunity to veto a mining project can only increase the odds that it does not get approval. Mining companies see things the other way though; according to Fletcher Newton of the National Mining Association (NMA), the “existing laws and authorities are adequate to protect special areas. New closures of public land, based on vague and subjective criteria without Congressional oversight, would arbitrarily impair domestic mineral and economic development” (NMA statement before Natural Resources Committee). In addition, the NMA contends, increased Federal discretion over allocating mining permits is not only unnecessary, but also creates uncertainty regarding ultimate mining project approval and such uncertainty would scare away the possible investors needed for mining success. This would only result in foreign speculation and increased U.S. reliance on foreign minerals (Newton). Already federal lands account for as much as 86 percent of some Western states, among which contain 75 percent of the nation’s extractable metal (“American Strength: America’s Minerals”). As new mining operations are either restricted or banned on more than half of this publicly owned federal land, the environmental groups and locals affected by the surge in new mining claims are pushing to withdraw more land.
Recently, in response to the numerous claims being staked frighteningly close to the Grand Canyon, the Coconino County Board of Supervisors has passed a resolution calling on Arizona Congressional delegation to withdraw huge amounts of land surrounding Grad Canyon National Park from mineral entry. Nearly 99 percent of claims in the area are on lands owned by the federal government, meaning that Congress has the power to put such lands off limits for development of new mines (“Mining Near Grand Canyon a Radioactive Prospect”). Needless to say, mining companies oppose this proposed measure as well, while conservation groups, such as the Grand Canyon Trust, strongly support the resolution. Under the Atomic Energy Act (AEA) of 1954 the Uranium Mill Tailings Radiation Control Act of 1978 was created to regulate uranium processing, and the AEA also created the Atomic Energy Commission (later the Nuclear Regulatory Commission). Now, in addition to the constraints of the Environmental Protection Agency and National Environmental Policy Act, uranium miners feel bogged down by an ever-expanding bureaucracy of permits, disclosures, and requirements. The new proposed legislation only looks to worsen this, a grim proposition to miners whose environmental assessments and permitting process can already take upwards of a decade to complete (Newton). In the Congressional pork barrel it is unlikely to see any real progress in the above mentioned legislation anytime soon, however, it is the lawsuit brought to the Arizona District Court in Prescott, seeking to reverse the Forest Service’s issuance of 39 permits for exploratory uranium drilling just miles from Grand Canyon National Park, that threatens to bar such mining from the cherished area.
Immediately after the U.S. Forest Service approved the numerous drilling projects near the Grand Canyon on December 20, 2007, the Center for Biological Diversity, Grand Canyon Trust, and Sierra Club all filed a complaint for declaratory and injunctive relief in hopes of nullifying the issued permits. On March 12, 2008 a judge postponed any drilling in the area until the case could be heard at a later date (Levine). In this civil action the plaintiffs claim injuries that will occur to members of the different organizations who use the disputed area of Kaibab National Forest and Tusayan Ranger District for “aesthetic, recreational, scientific, educational, [and] religious purposes” (Levine), and seek relief in the form of disallowing uranium exploration drilling in the area near Grand Canyon National Park, declaring that the Forest Service violated the Appeals Reform Act (ARA), and National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), as well as awarding expenses and attorney fees (Levine). In this complaint, the conservation groups charge that the Forest Service first violated NEPA when granting the permits by “categorical exclusion” and thus failed to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement by not recognizing, considering, or assessing the potential impacts of the proposed projects. The Forest Service also did not consider the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) “significant factors” when categorically excluding the projects from an Environmental Impact Statement. Next, the Forest Service is accused of violating the ARA by failing to provide an Administrative Appeals Process that allows public concerns pending administrative actions to be heard (Levine). In Court, it is thus far unknown how the defendants in this case will refute the charges brought against them, for the case has not yet been heard. Outside of the courtroom, however, the mining community continues to maintain the benefits that uranium mining and ultimately nuclear power will have on the environment and earth on a whole, while opposition charges the opposite; that among other concerns, toxic heavy metals will escape to local water supplies. Despite the human health concern voiced by the Metropolitan Water District of Los Angeles, the Superintendent of Grand Canyon Park, Steve Martin, maintains, “more than a third of the canyon’s species will be affected if water quality suffered” (Pasternak). Behind either standpoint there is a strong following and lobbying arm, but the matter at hand, the rapidly increasing uranium mining claims on the Grand Canyon Rim, may only be decided in the courtroom.
In my personal opinion, given from a moderate environmentalists’ point of view, mining so close to the many natural wonders of the Southwest is wrong and should be stopped and protected against. In accordance with the laws in question, however, it seems that the Forest Service has no overwhelming obligation to perform an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) when granting mining permits that are outside of protected or withdrawn areas. Even with an EIS that considers significant factors performed under NEPA and CEQ, the Forest Service still would have been able to grant such permits in a National Forest, where uranium mining is allowed, as opposed to a National Park. Under current mining law, it seems that the Forrest Service had no choice but to eventually approve the exploratory drilling, even if all environmental factors had been thoroughly considered (Pasternak). In addition, the type of mining that is to be used at the canyon rim, as well as in most other new uranium mining sites, is In-Situ Leaching, which turns out to be much less harmful, if not still unsightly (“American Strength: America’s Minerals”). The claim that the Forest Service violated the Appeals Reform Act is another story, and may prove to halt the drilling projects. If in fact no consideration was given to the numerous complaints and possible remedies offered by various environmental groups, and the Forest Service did not postpone their decision for the mandatory 45-day period after receiving public appeals, then the drilling projects are unlawful and should be set aside. Although it is unclear what the defendants in this case will argue, in a court of law the decision could potentially go either way. Therefore, the most definite manner of ensuring that no mining is done within such proximity of the Grand Canyon is to withdraw the surrounding lands through Congressional legislation.
Many of the laws during the western migration of Americans were intended to foster settlement and regional economic prosperity. The General Mining Act of 1872 is no exception, but has remained unchanged since, allowing for a great number of easily and cheaply attained uranium mining claims to dot the lands immediately surrounding many precious wilderness areas and National Parks in the Southwest United States. Under the EPA and NEPA, however, environmental organizations have found a way to challenge a handful of these drilling projects just south of Grand Canyon National Park, while from another angle attempt to reform the outdated Mining Act. Such a bitter debate between environmentalists and mining companies is to be expected, but rarely do both sides claim to be helping Mother Nature as seen in this debate. Whatever the outcome, it remains true that the Grand Canyon and other’s like it deserve more than the calamity of industrial mining as a neighbor.