US mining uranium near Grand Canyon amid rising demand, push for nuclear power

The largest uranium producer in the United States is ramping up work just south of Grand Canyon National Park on a long-contested project that comes as global instability and growing demand drive uranium prices higher.

The Biden administration and dozens of other countries have pledged to triple the capacity of nuclear power worldwide in their battle against climate change, and policy changes are being adopted by some to lessen Russia’s influence over the supply chain.

But as the US pursues its nuclear power potential, environmentalists and Native American leaders remain fearful of the consequences for communities near mining and milling sites in the West and are demanding more regulatory oversight.

The new mining at Pinyon Plain Mine near the Grand Canyon is happening within the boundaries of the Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukv National Monument that was designated in August by President Joe Biden. The work was allowed to move forward since Energy Fuels Inc. had valid existing rights.

Low impact with zero risk to groundwater is how Energy Fuels spokesman Curtis Moore describes the project.

The mine will cover 17 acres (6.8 hectares) and operate for just a few years, producing at least 2 million pounds (about 907,000 kilograms) of uranium — enough to power the state of Arizona for at least a year with carbon-free electricity, he said.

“As the global outlook for clean, carbon-free nuclear energy strengthens and the US moves away from Russian uranium supply, the demand for domestically sourced uranium is growing,” Moore said.

Energy Fuels, which also is prepping two more mines in Colorado and Wyoming, was awarded a contract in 2022 to sell $18.5 million in uranium concentrates to the US government to help establish the nation’s strategic reserve for when supplies might be disrupted.

Amid the growing appetite for uranium, a coalition of Native Americans testified before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in late February, asking the panel to pressure the US government to overhaul outdated mining laws and prevent further exploitation of marginalized communities.

Carletta Tilousi, who served for years on the Havasupai Tribal Council, said she and others have written countless letters to state and federal agencies and have sat through hours of meetings with regulators and lawmakers. Her tribe’s reservation lies in a gorge off the Grand Canyon.

“We have been diligently participating in consultation processes,” she said. “They hear our voices. There’s no response.”

Numerous legal challenges aimed at stopping the Pinyon Plain Mine repeatedly have been rejected by the courts, and top officials in the Biden administration are reticent to weigh in beyond speaking generally about efforts to improve consultation with Native American tribes.

It’s just the latest battle over energy development and sacred lands, as tribes in Nevada and Arizona are fighting the federal government over the mining of lithium and the siting of renewable energy transmission lines.

The Havasupai are concerned mining could affect water supplies, wildlife, plants and geology throughout the Colorado Plateau, and the Colorado River flowing through the Grand Canyon and its tributaries are vital to millions of people across the West.

For the Havasupai, their water comes from aquifers deep below the mine.

The Pinyon Plain Mine, formerly known as the Canyon Mine, was permitted in 1984. With existing rights, it was grandfathered into legal operation despite a 20-year moratorium placed on uranium mining in the Grand Canyon region by the Obama administration in 2012.

The US Forest Service in 2012 reaffirmed an environmental impact statement that had been prepared for the mine years earlier, and state regulators signed off on air and aquifer protection permitting within the last two years.

“We work extremely hard to do our work at the highest standards,” Moore said. “And it’s upsetting that we’re vilified like we are. The things we’re doing are backed by science and the regulators.”

The regional aquifers feeding the springs at the bottom of the Grand Canyon are deep — around 1,000 feet (304 meters) below the mine — and separated by nearly impenetrable rock, Moore said.

State regulators also have said the area’s geology is expected to provide an element of natural protection against water from the site migrating toward the Grand Canyon.

Still, environmentalists say the mine raises bigger questions about the Biden administration’s willingness to adopt favorable nuclear power policies.

Using nuclear power to reach emissions goals is a hard sell in the western US From the Navajo Nation to Ute Mountain Ute and Oglala Lakota homelands, tribal communities have deep-seated distrust of uranium companies and the federal government as abandoned mines and related contamination have yet to be cleaned up.

Taylor McKinnon, the Center for Biological Diversity’s Southwest director, said allowing mining near the Grand Canyon “makes a mockery of the administration’s environmental justice rhetoric.”

“It’s literally a black eye for the Biden administration,” he said.

Teracita Keyanna with the Red Water Pond Road Community Association got choked up while testifying before the human rights commission in Washington, DC, saying federal regulators proposed keeping onsite soil contaminated by past operations in New Mexico rather than removing it.

“It’s really unfair that we have to deal with this and my children have to deal with this and later on, my grandchildren have to deal with this,” she said.

“Why is the government just feeling like we’re disposable. We’re not.”

In Congress, some lawmakers who come from communities blighted by past contamination are digging in their heels.

Congresswoman Cori Bush of Missouri said during a congressional meeting in January that lawmakers can’t talk about expanding nuclear energy in the US without first dealing with the effects that nuclear waste has had on minority communities.

In Bush’s district in St. Louis, waste was left behind from the uranium refining required by the top-secret Manhattan Project.

“We have a responsibility to both fix — and learn from — our mistakes,” she said, “before we risk subjecting any other communities to the same exposure.

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