Grand Canyon uranium threatens tribal water


Last week, a delegation of leaders from Arizona’s Havasupai Tribe traveled to Washington D.C., to advocate for the protection of the Grand Canyon region from a potential onslaught of uranium extraction activities. These four women – tribal council members and traditional elders – voiced their concern for the safety of the land, the purity of the water and the health of the community, and called for the passage of the Grand Canyon Watershed Protection Act (H.R. 644). Introduced in 2009 by Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) this law would ban mineral exploration and the establishment of new mining claims pursuant to the 1872 Mining Law, on about one million acres of public lands surrounding Grand Canyon National Park.

Uranium deposits are found throughout the Grand Canyon region in layered formations called breccia pipes, located near precious local aquifers easily breached by extractive operations. Such operations could also cause uranium, previously undisturbed for millions of years, to move, oxidize and dissolve into nearby seeps and springs which eventually feed into the Colorado River – a significant source of water for 27 million people in seven Southwestern states, and the sole water source for the Havasupai.

A Northern Arizona uranium mining boom in the 1980s saw the contamination of several water sources including Kanab Creek, which runs along the Canyon’s northern rim, when a flash flood washed tons of high-grade uranium ore into the Creek; the creeks below the Orphan Mine, sited near the south rim of the Grand Canyon; and the Little Colorado River, where the National Park Service warns visitors against drinking or bathing due to the presence of excessive radioactive isotopes. Uranium and its decay elements are highly toxic, and are associated with lung cancer, skin cancer, bone cancer, leukemia, kidney damage and birth defects.

Over the past five years, spikes in uranium prices on the worldwide market have yielded approximately ten thousand new uranium claims on the lands near the Grand Canyon, numerous proposed exploratory drilling projects, and proposals to reinitiate uranium mining – relying on outdated permits – at old mine sites adjacent to the Canyon. In July 2009, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar authorized a two-year hiatus for new uranium claims near the Grand Canyon, but only the federal legislature can provide for the land’s permanent protection from mining. Even then, a bill such as the Grand Canyon Watershed Protection Act will not apply to claims that were identified prior to the passage of the bill as containing economically developable uranium deposits.

The 600 Havasupai tribe members, many of whom live in a small village at the base of the Grand Canyon, know themselves to be the guardians of the Canyon and its waters. The Havasupai, or “People of the Blue-Green Water,” anticipate that uranium mining near the Canyon would contaminate their water sources and would desecrate sacred areas. One such area is Red Butte, where the Havasupai have performed many of their traditional ceremonies for centuries, and which is located just three miles away from Denison’s proposed Canyon Uranium Mine.

The four Havasupai leaders who traveled to the Capital last week told stories of Red Butte’s significance, and of uranium’s threat to this holy mountain and to the waters of the Canyon. They implored legislators to protect the Grand Canyon as a pristine national treasure for the sake of future generations. Their concerns reinforced an earlier statement by Rep. Nick Rahall (D-WV), that “the unparalleled beauty of the Grand Canyon has made it one of those places that people around the world automatically recognize as truly American.  It is a natural wonder that we have an inherent duty to preserve for coming generations by restricting future uranium mining.” Concerned citizens can support these advocacy efforts by monitoring the Grand Canyon Watershed Protection Act, and by urging their senators and representatives to support the bill when it comes up for a vote.

The Grand Canyon Trust and the Sierra Club provided background information for this post.

Caitlin Sislin, Esq. is the Advocacy Director for Women's Earth Alliance, where she coordinates the Sacred Earth Advocacy Network -- a network of pro bono legal and policy advocates in collaboration with indigenous women environmental justice leaders.  For more information about Women’s Earth Alliance, please contact Caitlin at

Anonymous says:
May 18, 2010 01:10 PM
Analysis of the facts concerned shows the various "could happen" fears raised about uranium exploration and mining in the Grand Canyon region in this article are baseless.

For support of this assertion, see the following documents:[…]/Scoping-Report.pdf


The draft Grand Canyon region EIS is due out this coming August.
Anonymous says:
May 19, 2010 08:53 AM
Anytime native women advocate on behalf of their people, heed their words. Science has nothing on Traditional Native Knowledge. Rep. Rahall is a good man to the American Indian/Alaskan Native people...he has a heart.
Anonymous says:
May 19, 2010 09:12 AM
Don't forget that science is also traditional native knowledge -- and it is usually much more accurate than the strictly homegrown variety.
Anonymous says:
May 19, 2010 09:36 AM
Accurate is a non-native term and belongs with science. You don't heard "accurate" in traditional native knowledge teachings.
Anonymous says:
May 19, 2010 10:48 AM
Some of the scientific study done on potential impacts to Grand Canyon and its watersheds was done by the National Park Service and it enumerates several concerns about risks to Canyon resources including the water supply. A copy of the NPS study is available here:[…]/

Cut and paste url to your browser.

Anonymous says:
May 19, 2010 10:59 AM
A study done by the National Park Service enumerates many concerns about effects of uranium mining on Canyon resources. Readers can view the study here:[…]/

The USGS study Larry refers to is flawed as their own employees testified at a recent congressional hearing that they were using water samples taken back in the 1980s and didn't feel they had adequate time to do a thorough study. The BLM is in the business of promoting extractive indusry so take their studies with a grain of salt.
Anonymous says:
May 19, 2010 11:48 AM
The USGS is largely an academic institution and, as such, its staff is not used to working under time and budget constraints like those associated with the NEPA EIS process imposed by Secretary of Interior Salazar. Moreover, there is nothing wrong with the historical baseline data obtained by the USGS for the Colorado River drainage. This monitoring program has been continuous from at least the 1980s. See the report cited below for more detail.

Note also that the draft EA provided at http://public.dirxploration[…]%20Assessment%202-22-09.pdf was completed by consultants and not the USGS. The consultants concerned have made no complaint of time or budget constraints (they are, unlike most USGS personnel, trained to work under time and budget constraints).

Finally, note that the NPS report cited is apparently a preliminary partial (biota-centered) contribution to the EIS currently being prepared by the NPS, US Forest Service, US DOW, BLM, and DOI. As such, it was necessarily drafted without any reference to final formal EIS estimations of surface disturbance, hydrological impacts, etc., of continued uranium mining work in the region. Its first draft-nature is, in essence, a scoping draft of the POTENTIAL cumulative or maximum impacts of continued uranium development in the area on plant and wildlife. This draft report also does not take into account obvious mitigation measures and/or the fact that uranium mining in the region will be a very slow, gradual process with no more than 6 to 15 new mines being developed over each ensuing 20 year period. (The exploration and mine development process is slow, as breccia pipe targets are difficult to prepare for mine development).

Finally, the comment on the BLM made by Richard is also unsupported by reality. Unlike some other more entrepreneurial federal agencies, the BLM has a relatively remarkable record for very closely following the mandates put upon it by US law and regulation.

Anonymous says:
May 19, 2010 04:13 PM
Larry conveniently overlooks the fact that the uranium mining industry continues to spread the lie that "uranium mining will be different this time, unlike the past." The facts, however, show it's business as usual. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has told Canada-based Denison Mines that it has failed to comply with environmental and permitting regulations and is therefore operating its Arizona 1 uranium mine illegally.

In a notice of violation, the EPA said that Denison had failed to apply for and obtain an approval to construct or modify prior to ventilating the Arizona 1 mine, as well as failing to provide notifications regarding start-up of the mine. In addition, the EPA alleges that Denison also failed to obtain EPA approval for an alternative test method to determine compliance with radon emission standards.

So, what exactly has changed Larry?
Anonymous says:
May 19, 2010 06:11 PM
Richard raises red herrings and feeds them to straw men. The EPA is, in fact, one of those "entrepreneurial" federal agencies I alluded to.
Anonymous says:
May 19, 2010 07:07 PM
Larry's response is a typical industry diversion. When you have no facts to argue then divert attention to fictional "red herrings and straw men." Fact is Denison Mines broke the law and Larry can spin it as much as he wants but the fact remains, they are untrustworthy lawbreakers who don't care how much they damage the environment or harm the health of their workers as long as dollars are flowing into their pockets.
Anonymous says:
May 19, 2010 11:06 AM
The uranium industry likes to spin the issue as one of national security but their dirty little secret is that much of the uranium now being mined near Grand Canyon is going to Korea and the United Arab Emerites (UAE). More info here:
Anonymous says:
May 19, 2010 04:03 PM
The BLM has had a very difficult time thoroughly applying the NEPA process, as evidenced by the revoking of 77 oil and gas leases in Utah. Just because the BLM conducts the NEPA process doesn't mean it's done correctly, and the public has the right to contest the findings-rightfully so where Uranium extraction is concerned.