Arizona continues push to open new uranium mines near Grand Canyon

Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich (left) speaks to Glenn Hamer, president and CEO of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, at a Arizona Manufacturers Council and chamber event. (Photo by Curtis Spicer/Cronkite News)

Arizona officials continue to support a federal court battle to allow new uranium mining operations on a million acres surrounding the Grand Canyon.

In 2012, the federal government put a stop to any new mines in the area. Officials said they wanted to protect the “natural, cultural and social resources in the Grand Canyon watershed,” according to the order.

But Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich said new mines could bring much-needed jobs to the area, and he must fight for local businesses. So Arizona, along with several other states, joined the National Mining Association in its efforts to overturn the federal government’s order.

The case is before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Brnovich, speaking to the Arizona Chamber of Commerce earlier this month, said the order that initially stopped new mining operations is an example of federal overreach.

“So much of what’s happening today in the environmental movement is not about science. It’s not about quality of life. It’s not about clean air. It’s not about clean water,” he said. “It’s about control.”

The mining association, which represents more than 250 companies, wants the court to strike down the Northern Arizona Withdrawal, an order Interior Secretary Ken Salazar signed that put a hold on new mining claims in the area. It still allows pre-existing mines to operate for the next 20 years.

The U.S. District Court for Arizona upheld the order in 2014, and the mining association appealed.

Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes filed an amicus brief last November on behalf of Utah, Montana, Nevada and Arizona in support of the mining association in National Mining Association v. Jewell.

“Once we as a state cede that control to the federal government, we’re never going to get it back,” Brnovich said. “There is nothing more permanent than a temporary government program.”

But environmental advocates and tribal officials said any change to the current rules could irrevocably damage the land.

For decades, the northern area of the state known as the Arizona Strip produced millions of tons of high-grade uranium ore. The uranium powers nuclear reactors, allows for more powerful munitions and remains a key component for medical devices.

Energy Fuels, the company that operates four uranium mines in the Arizona Strip, estimates the newly reopened Canyon Mine, six miles from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, holds 1.63 million pounds of uranium recently valued at about $65 per pound, according to projections from the Fission Uranium Corp.

The Bureau of Land Management predicted that if the government does not pass new regulations, about 728 uranium exploration projects, 30 uranium mines, 317,505 ore haul trips and 22.4 miles of new roads and power lines with about 1,321 acres of disturbed landscape would occur in the Grand Canyon region over the next 20 years.

The Havasupai tribe, whose boundaries border the Grand Canyon, and several environmental groups support the Department of the Interior and the Grand Canyon Trust in their fight against the mining interests.

Havasupai Chairman Rex Tilousi, whose tribe lost its case to stop the reopening of the Canyon Mine, said he refuses to stop fighting mining interests.

“We didn’t want any mines around our home because of the contamination,” Tilousi said. “I believe there are other ways we can get energy, either wind or solar.”

However, Brnovich said the Navajo and other tribes’ economies depend on the industry.

“Go up to the Navajo reservation, where it’s going to cost thousands of jobs, where they rely so heavily on energy production and mining,” he said.

Tilousi said he disagrees because the region will fail to support life if all the water becomes undrinkable.

An Environmental Protection Agency report on uranium contamination in the Navajo Nation said companies extracted nearly 4 million tons of uranium ore from Navajo lands between 1944 and 1986. Companies abandoned about 500 uranium mines and left water sources with elevated levels of radiation.

Tilousi said he supports the millions of tourists who visit the Grand Canyon because they help raise awareness when it comes to environmental issues.

“It’s not a good thing that’s happening here,” Tilousi said. “We do have a lot of visitors, and we fight for them and our community.”

Katie Davis of the Center for Biological Diversity, a non-profit organization that advocates for protecting the environment and endangered species, said the conversation about how the country uses energy needs to change.

“We’re presented with fossil fuel or nuclear power,” Davis said. “And that’s a disingenuous choice.”

According to EPA and U.S. Geological Survey estimates, taxpayers already have paid $15 million to contain the pollution caused by the Orphan Mine, on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon and now a Superfund site.

Though uranium mining sometimes provides short-term economic gains, Davis said the long-term costs remain too detrimental to surrounding communities, tourism and the environment.

“Public officials don’t support the majority of people in Arizona,” she said. “They support the money industry. It’s really telling that the elected and appointed officials of the Grand Canyon State are arguing against the interests of the Grand Canyon.”