Indigenous Peoples and Human Rights 2020

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Resisting the Nuclear Boom: A new wave of uranium mining threatens Indigenous communities in Southwest

Resisting the Nuclear Boom: A new wave of uranium mining threatens Indigenous communities in the Southwest
By Klee Benally and Jessica Lee

Since December, miners have resumed crawling deep into the earth on the edge of the Grand Canyon to mine high-grade uranium ore at the Arizona 1 Mine, which had been closed since the late 1980s. Owned by the Canadian Denison Mines Corp., it is the first uranium mine to open in northern Arizona since nuclear power again became a popular idea in Washington within the last decade. The greater Grand Canyon area faces a possible explosion in the number of new uranium mines.

The price of uranium has rebounded in recent years due to a surge in reactor construction throughout the world and thanks to political support from the White House, starting with George W. Bush and reinforced by Barack Obama. The price has varied from $10 to $138 per pound since 2001, and is currently valued at $41.25 per pound.

More than 8,000 uranium mine claims have been filed in northern Arizona, an increase from 110 in 2003 — a rate seen across the West. The area’s sedimentary rock layer called breccia pipes, which exists up to 1,800 feet below the surface, is the most concentrated source of uranium known in the United States.

According to the Arizona Daily Sun, Denison plans on operating four days per week, extracting 335 tons of uranium ore per day. The hazardous ore will be hauled by truck more than 300 miles through towns and rural communities to the company’s White Mesa mill located near Blanding, Utah, where it will be processed into “yellowcake” (refined uranium ore to make uranium oxide) and then sold.

A coalition of environmental groups filed a lawsuit last November to stop the opening of the mine, alleging that the legally required documents were outdated and did not offer protections required by contemporary environmental laws. While the lawsuit is pending, the Bureau of Land Management and Arizona Department of Environmental Quality say the mine is properly authorized.

In response to growing concern about the pending mining boom in northern Arizona, U.S. Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar called for a “two-year time-out” last summer to allow federal agencies to complete a two-year environmental review before authorizing new mining claims within the one million acres on federal lands near the Grand Canyon. Existing claims, such as Denison’s mine, were exempt from the temporary moratorium.

Environmentalists and local Indigenous communities hope that after the review in February 2011, Salazar will make the area unavailable for new mining claims for the a maximum 20-year period allowed by the Interior Department. Meanwhile, the U.S. House of Representatives is considering the Grand Canyon Watersheds Protection Act (H.R. 644), legislation that would permanently protect the one million acres on federal land from new mining claims — creating a five-mile buffer zone of around Grand Canyon National Park.

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