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Earth Notes: The Grand Canyon's Uranium Debate

Pinyon Plain Mine
Ryan Heinsius/KNAU
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The Pinyon Plain Mine, as seen from the air in November 2019, is the only active uranium mine near Grand Canyon National National Park, though it's yet to produce ore since it was first permitted in 1986. It's located on the Kaibab National Forest less than 10 miles south of the South Rim within a million acres where new uranium claims were banned for 20 years in 2012 by the Obama administration. Conservationists and tribes worry drilling activities could pollute an aquifer that feeds the seeps and springs in the Grand Canyon and provide the Havasupai Tribe with its sole source of drinking water. Mining companies maintain that modern extraction methods are safe and ample protections are in place for air and water.

For many, the Grand Canyon is the cultural and environmental epicenter of the West. It attracts millions of people each year to take in its mercurial beauty and epic scale. But concealed in the ancient rock layers lies some of the highest-grade uranium ore in the U.S. It’s led to a decades-long showdown over what amount of mining in the area, if any, is safe.

Mining isn’t allowed inside the national park, but companies are attracted to the land surrounding it. Conservationists say extracting uranium, even miles from the canyon, threatens the seeps and springs that support habitats and rich biodiversity and feed the Colorado River.

The Obama administration temporarily halted new uranium mining claims on more than a million acres a decade ago. But critics say drilling at the sole active mine near the South Rim may have already polluted a large aquifer thousands of feet below the surface.

If it’s true, that could have devastating consequences for the Havasupai Tribe, which depends on the aquifer for its only source of water. They’re among several groups of Indigenous peoples with cultural and spiritual connections to the Grand Canyon and have been among the most forceful opponents of uranium mining.

Not everybody agrees, however, and the mining industry says modern extraction methods are safe and that considerable protections are in place for air and water.

Still, opinion polls show strong support across the political spectrum for enhanced safeguards, and the U.S. Senate is considering a bill to make the mining ban permanent. Supporters are hoping for some long-term assurance that the West’s most emblematic landscape will continue to thrive well into the future.

This Earth Note was written by Ryan Heinsius and produced by KNAU and the Sustainable Communities Program at Northern Arizona University.

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Ryan joined KNAU's newsroom in 2013. He covers a broad range of stories from local, state and tribal politics to education, economy, energy and public lands issues, and frequently interviews internationally known and regional musicians. Ryan is an Edward R. Murrow Award winner and a frequent contributor to NPR.
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