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Uranium mining near the Grand Canyon? A reasonable debate from both sides of the issue

Nov 30, 2011

The Grand Canyon. One of the Seven Wonders of the World. A place millions of people around the world visit every year to see and experience. The grandeur of the rocks, the majesty of the view, the incredible sunsets as the sun sinks below the canyon ... it's as beautiful and majestic a place we have in this country.

So naturally, any talk at all about changing, ruining or damaging it is bound to be controversial. And so it caused a little bit of a stir last month when members of Congress, led by Republican Trent Franks (AZ, 2nd district) spoke up strongly, with words and actions, to allow uranium mining near the Grand Canyon.

House Resolution 3155 is actually a request to prohibit a ban on uranium mining on a 40 miles long, 40 acres wide area in Arizona. This past June, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar proposed a two-year that would block new uranium mining claims for two years on a million acres of land near the Arizona strip.

What H.R. 3155 would do is prohibit such a ban, and allow uranium mining companies to work near the area that was prohibited, an area near the Grand Canyon.

Upon seeing H.R. 3155 get introduced in Congress, several Democratic members of the House, including Democrat Raul Grijalva (Arizona, 7th District) sprang into action, angrily denouncing H.R. 3155.  He held a hearing in Congress shortly after H.R. 3155 was introduced, explaining that contamination from uranium mining has the potential to impact rivers and water sources downstream from the source.

"Other than the international mining industry and the lobbyists, I'm puzzled at who H.R. 3155 is being put forward for," Grijalva said.

On the Huffington Post blog last week, former Florida Congressman Alan Grayson claimed that at the uranium mine near the Colorado River in Utah, "16 million tons of radioactive debris have been produced, and that taxpayers are spending $720 million to move that radioactive debris away from the river." (Grayson does not cite a source for those figures about the Colorado River in Utah, but in 2005 the Department of Energy proposed to move that debris from the river.)

Naturally, you can see why this would create a heated argument. The Grand Canyon is considered to be a sacred treasure, and it'd be easy and simplistic to simply say one side is completely wrong. It'd be simple to portray the GOP sponsors of this bill as being in the pockets of the mining industry, and the Democrats to be the ones fighting for environmental concerns, real or imagined, that may exist here.

But let's take a little bit of a closer look. This is not a simplistic issue, and it would appear that both sides have valid arguments.

First, let's look at Rep. Franks and his reasoning for wanting to eliminate the mining ban. The area of Arizona where new mines would be built, Mohave County, has an unemployment rate of 11 percent, with that number spiking to 52 percent for Native Americans living on the Navajo reservation in the county.

Mohave County Supervisor Buster Johnson testified before Congress this fall, around the time of Franks' introduction of H.R. 3155, talking about the economic impact that the lack of mines would have on his area. He cited a study done by the American Clean Energy Resource Trust, called the Economic Impact of Uranium Mining on Coconino and Mohave Counties. He said the study found that a ban on uranium mining near the Arizona Strip would cost the county $40 million.

Johnson also stated that the study found "1,000 new jobs will be eliminated, $2 billion in federal and state corporate income taxes will never be paid, and over $175

1,000 new jobs will be eliminated, $2 billion in federal and state corporate income taxes will never be paid, and over $175 million in taxes and fees will be lost to local governments."

So clearly, economic forces are at work here; allowing uranium mining near the Grand Canyon could create jobs and bring in additional revenue. I spoke to Kate Middleton, the press secretary for Congressman Franks, this week and she pointed out several other reasons it's vital for mining to be allowed.

She said that the U.S. currently imports 90 percent of the uranium needed to operate our 104 nuclear sites, and that clearly that can be changed by opening up American land for mining.

She also added that the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Geological Survey, and Arizona State University studies have shown no threat to the surrounding water supply by mining this uranium. Finally, she said that this ban would ultimately make 375 million pounds of the best uranium in the country off-limits.

Congressman Franks, in his statement on the issue, said the following: "This shameful effort by the Obama administration is a step precisely in the wrong direction for the American economy, making the U.S. even more dependent on foreign powers and potentially creating a serious national security threat going forward."

Now, while that may sound a bit like overheated rhetoric, the fact is that there seem to be some legitimately strong reasons to allow mining in the Arizona Strip. Several other Congressmen and Senators have signed on as a co-sponsor for this legislation, including Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah.

Now to the other side. Rep. Grijalva said in his remarks before Congress on Nov. 3 he emphasized the potential dangers to tourism at the Grand Canyon, and to the water supply of the Colorado River. He pointed out that 10 million visitors come to the Grand Canyon every year, and approximately 27 million more depend on the water supply of the Colorado River.

Grijalva and other environmentalists have come out strongly on this issue, saying that the reason GOP lawmakers want mining near the canyon is strictly to pay back friends of theirs in the mining industry who want to expand their businesses, and on environmental grounds, the anti-Canyon mining groups are certain that uranium mines in this area will generate toxic waste.

Grijalva is calling on Salazar and the Obama administration to extend the ban on mining in the Arizona Strip for another 20 years, taking it off the table as a political issue for the next two decades.

So clearly we have two contrasting opinions here. Do we know for certain that toxic waste from uranium mines would affect the Grand Canyon area, and drinking water? No, not for certain, but it seems quite likely. Do we know for certain that building mines in that area would help the economy of Mohave County? No, not for certain, but it seems quite likely that jobs would be available in new mines.

There has been no further movement on H.R. 3155 since it was introduced and hearings were held on Nov. 3, and the Obama administration has not yet said whether it will extend the ban on mining in the area.

It's a tricky issue with pros and cons on both sides, like most issues in Washington. When the rhetoric gets turned down a little, reasonable debate can sometimes occur. Let's hope that on this issue that affects so many, reason trumps rhetoric.