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Policy makers discuss Grand Canyon's future


By Laurel Morales

Grand Canyon, AZ – A joint field hearing was held at the south rim of Grand Canyon National Park April 8 to help shape policy regarding the environmental future of the park. About 2 hundred people listened to testimony from many sides of two controversial and complicated issues: uranium mining on land surrounding the park and impacts of Glen Canyon Dam. Among them were Arizona Congressmen Raul Grijalva and John Shadegg, and two California Representatives. Arizona Public Radio's Laurel Morales reports.

Some people who look at the land and water in and surrounding Grand Canyon National Park see more than a breathtaking view. They also see valuable energy potential -- the hydropower produced by Glen Canyon Dam and the nuclear power produced by uranium found in the Arizona Strip.

Minerals consultant Michael Berry points out that the land surrounding the park contains some of the richest uranium in the country.

BERRY: The development of this fuel source would produce 375 mil pounds of uranium which could power the three reactors at Arizona's Palo Verde for 208 years replacing 13.3 billion barrels of crude oil and removing carbon dioxide produced by conventional energy sources.

All that energy could mean big economic benefits for the region Berry says in the 1980s a mining company drilling on the Arizona Strip invested more than a billion dollars in the Kanab-Fredonia area in the decade they were there.

The Interior Secretary has put a temporary moratorium on uranium mining activity on a million acres surrounding the park. Congressman Grijalva and environmentalists would like to see that moratorium extended indefinitely. Neither action prevents valid existing claims from being developed. One mine is currently operating 20 miles from the north rim.

The Havasupai Tribe does not allow uranium mining on its land but chairwoman Carletta Tilousi says Denison Mines has drilled in the area surrounding the tribe's sacred Red Butte.

TILOUSI: This type of action by any mining company is sacriligious to Havasupai stories. This type of action is like puncturing the lungs of our grandmother.
She also fears mining may cause uranium to leach into Havasupai Creek, the tribe's drinking water source.

TILOUSI: Many families depend on that water for human consumption and farming purposes. We the Havasupai are gravely concerned about human life and animal life in the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

Tilousi didn't have any evidence of contamination. California Republican Tom McClintock says more research needs to be done before reaching such grave conclusions.

The USGS is still collecting water samples. And the National Park Service Natural Resource Stewardship and Science director Bert Frost says a two year moratorium is not enough time.

FROST: The bottom line is two years is not enough time to make the best decision we can. We'll still be able to make a decision but we could always use additional time and resources to further investigate how the water moves, where it goes, if it gets contaminated or not.

Thanks to current technology mining companies insist the environmental footprint they leave is small.

Northern Arizona University hydrogeologist Abe Springer says there is still potential to harm the aquifer feeding the canyon springs through faults, fractures and sink holes.

SPRINGER: The difficulty is what risk is acceptable. I think the people and aquifers are unable to accept any risk short of being economic mechanisms in place capable of paying for any mitigation. And mitigation from contamination of aquifers can be very expensive to import water from extreme distances.

In addition to uranium mining the hearing also touched on impacts of Glen Canyon Dam. A group of panelists testified about man-made floods intended to build up beaches along the Colorado River within the Grand Canyon. A 2008 high flow experiment from the dam sent sediment downstream, provided habitat for plants and animals, and helped protect archaeological resources. But most of the sandbars eroded six months later. Representative McClintock says more flows would affect the amount of hydropower produced at the dam at a time when utilities in Nevada and California are struggling.

For Arizona Public Radio I'm Laurel Morales at Grand Canyon.