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Grand Canyon, numerous proposed exploratory drilling projects, and proposals to reinitiate uranium mining – relying on outdated permits – at old mine sites adjacent to the Canyon.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 [email protected].

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