Interview: Advocates Want Permanent Ban On Uranium Mining Near Grand Canyon

Sep 7, 2016

Credit Airwolfhound / CC BY-SA 2.0

A national conservation group has been collecting petition signatures in Nevada encouraging President Obama to permanently ban uranium mining in areas surrounding Grand Canyon National Park.  Reno Public Radio’s Steve Shadley spoke to an environmentalist who fears mining could contaminate Colorado River water that’s sent downstream to millions of people south of Las Vegas.

Michael Lovito is with Environment America, a Washington DC-based group collecting petition signatures that will be sent to the White House. Uranium mining has been happening for decades outside northern Arizona’s Grand Canyon National Park. Even though President Obama enacted a temporary ban, Lovito is concerned mining could expand. He fears the Colorado River at the bottom of the canyon could be contaminated with radioactive runoff.

Michael Lovito: There is no actual mining within the canyon because that is protected as a national park; however, the area outside the canyon, the closest I believe is about six miles outside the south rim, there are uranium mines there. Some of them have been closed for a while, but recently the price of uranium has gone up, so there are mines that are reopening. It’s Environment America’s goal to make sure that no new mines are able to be established and that this area around the Grand Canyon may be protected as the Grand Canyon National Heritage Monument.

KUNR: Now, really the issue is that President Obama a few years ago declared parts of the Grand Canyon that are not protected as a the national park as currently a temporary ban on new uranium mining there. And, so, what is your group doing to ensure that the new mines don’t open in the future?

ML: Yeah, so President Obama signed a 20-year moratorium on uranium mining outside the Grand Canyon in 2012. And, so, our goal is to have President Obama make the area a national monument. He has that power under the Antiquities Act and it would be called the Grand Canyon National Heritage Monument. Once the area is protected as a national monument, no new uranium mines will be able to be established. In Reno, we have been doing some street petitioning, approaching people and asking them to sign our petition. We have photo petitions as well with a sign. We’re asking people to write down why they love the Grand Canyon.

KUNR: So why is it important to take care of this during Obama’s administration?

ML: Well, the moratorium can be lifted by a president who comes in after him, whether it’s Clinton or Trump, they could hypothetically eliminate the moratorium. Now, there’s very little precedent of a president eliminating a national monument, so essentially if Obama does create the monument, there would be very little any president could do to introduce more uranium mining in the area.

KUNR: The area is not protected as a national park, a lot of that is tribal land, so isn’t that really up to the tribes to say what they do with their property?

ML: On some level, yes, and, in fact, they have been very vocal about the issue. Actually, in 2005, the Navajo Nation banned uranium mining on their lands and there’s actually a bill currently that’s been introduced into Congress that would essentially have the same effect as Obama creating the national monument. It was introduced by a congressman from Arizona and it was collaborated on with leaders of the Hopi Tribe, the Havasupai Tribe and about three other Native American tribes.

KUNR: Now there are some people who would say, ‘I can understand your concerns about contaminating a water supply for places like Phoenix and the agriculture in Mexico, but also, uranium mining creates jobs and provides economic growth. And if uranium is used for nuclear power, that’s an alternative to coal-fired power plants that are creating particulate matter, smog, and air quality issues at the Grand Canyon.’ There could be a tradeoff here in some people’s minds.

ML: The truth about nuclear power is that it’s really expensive and the investment that goes into nuclear power takes away from investments into actual clean renewables like wind power and air power. It’s not a good enough of a reason to start mining near the Grand Canyon, of all places. The Grand Canyon, a symbol of American might and beauty, will essentially be commodified. It’s a little troubling to think about, honestly.