Keeping it Grand: A Fight Against Uranium Mining in the Grand Canyon

by Shelby Guinard '19, Lawrence Academy

National parks are a large part of what makes the United States of America a great country. National parks are plots of land dedicated to preserving the history and earth in which people take advantage of every day. People travel across the country, and across the globe, to see the wonders the USA has to offer, one of which is the Grand Canyon. But, even though the goal of a national park is to preserve and protect the land, the Grand Canyon is a battleground for its richness in uranium. Political figures are fighting to sell parts of the Grand Canyon to those seeking to earn profits from the uranium mining industry, while the Navajo nation fights to protect both the land they have lived on and their own wellbeing. National parks are about preserving the wonders the Earth has created for all. Because the Grand Canyon is part of a national park, and the parks are created to preserve and protect the land, ostentatiously, there should not be uranium mining in or near the Grand Canyon.

Found in the Grand Canyon is the element uranium, packed into the Earth’s crust. Uranium is an element found on the actinide row on the periodic table; it is a dense metal that has many isotopes, but the most abundant is uranium-238. Although this may be the most abundant in uranium ore, uranium-235 is the most desired isotope for nuclear power because it is the most fissionable. Uranium is also a radioactive element meaning that its atoms are unstable and can become harmful to life. It takes around 4.5 billion years for half of uranium to decay and its radioactivity to decrease to half of its original amount, resulting in a very long half-life. Because of these properties, uranium is a desirable fuel for nuclear power which can be turned into electricity. Business owners often try to make a profit off mining uranium and selling it to power plants. It is the key source to nuclear power because about one-kilogram releases about two and a half million times the energy that is released by one kilogram of coal. This allows for more energy for a lesser quantity, making it essential for nuclear energy production. The process of mining uranium involves drilling/flooding the hole created in the ground, transporting the uranium, and then at the power plant they must take the uranium-238 and uranium-235 and enrich it so the percent of uranium-235 goes from one to four percent; the percent necessary for nuclear power. Although uranium is desired for nuclear power, it is also used to make nuclear weapons. Both processes require creating what is known as a chain reaction where the uranium-235 is blasted with neutrons that split the atoms in half, creating two fission products which are two smaller atoms. When this happens, more neutrons are released and begin to bounce around, making the process loop repeatedly. This chain reaction produces large amounts of kinetic energy and heat energy used for the power plants. In a power plant, this process is controlled before it can become unstable, but if it becomes out of control, it leads to a nuclear meltdown. The uncontrolled version of chain reactions is also used in nuclear weapons to create a massive amount of energy that is unleashed and demolishes the surrounding area. For these reasons, there is debate over whether the government should challenge a ban put in place on mining the element from around the Grand Canyon.

After understanding uranium and its properties, it is easy to understand why there would be officials looking to mine the resource and use it, but it is also easy to see the dangers of pursuing the element. There has already been uranium mining located in the Grand Canyon on the South Rim, right by Hopi point; Orphan Mine. In this mine, many Navajo people worked here and suffered radiation effects later in life with the development of cancer. Its presence tainted the waters that many drink from and has damaged the area around it. Photos 1 and 2 in the appendix show that the Orphan Mine is still in the side of the Grand Canyon and lies there rusting. The two photos, present a full view of the shaft that leads into the open pit. A closer look shows the pulley system that was used when the mine was in operation over fifty years ago. Photo 3 of the appendix displays another method of mining uranium: the open pit. This open pit extracted large amounts of uranium, but it also produced large amounts of radon and radioactive discharge causing harm to the environment around it. Orphan mine has had a lasting impact on the Navajo people who worked there and those who merely live on their own land.

Orphan Mine is not the only source of pollution in the river. In the Little Colorado River Basin, there was a testing of the water quality in Sanders, Arizona, where the uranium content was 11/2 times the EPA’s standard drinking water limit as reported by Tommy Rocks.  This data was collected in 2015, showing that the old mine contamination is still prevalent in the rivers. Although this contamination may not directly affect the Grand Canyon rims, the Little Colorado River is a tributary to the Colorado River, and is still a main source of water for many living along both rivers. This contamination can bring only harm to those living there and areas nearby. In 2008, many were questioning the water quality of the Colorado River not only for uranium deposits, but for arsenic and mercury deposits as well. All three wastes would have to be monitored if mines were allowed in the Grand Canyon, because the Colorado River is a source of water for not only the tribes around, but for major cities like Phoenix, Arizona, Las Vegas, Nevada, Los Angeles, and San Diego, California. Creating more mines would create more possibilities for discharge or leaching, resulting in the contamination of the rivers, and harm to the wellbeing of the American population. Not only would it affect the Navajo people drastically, but it would also affect those thousands of miles away. A more modern method to mine the uranium would be in-situ leaching where workers drill into the ground and inject a solution that would dissolve the uranium in the ore. This solution then is pumped into a second well for storage. Although the Arizona ground is dry, there is a concern that if the leaching process becomes uncontrolled, the uranium-solution would potentially leach through the ground and into the major river. Even if the process is controlled, there is the fear of pollution given off by the process and still resulting in the contamination of the river. Because of the harmful properties that uranium has, it should, all in all, not be mined near the Grand Canyon.

Although there are many drawbacks to mining the element, the positive aspects of using uranium in nuclear energy is having a clean energy source to draw from. A clean energy source is one that produces energy without emitting CO2, a pollutant that causes harm. The process of harnessing nuclear energy does not require releasing any harmful pollutants into the Earth’s atmosphere. The power created by the uranium is harnessed by the chain reaction process in which control rods are placed to limit the chain reaction and prevent it from meltdown. As previously stated, the release of energy in the uranium chain reaction is much higher than the rate of the energy release of coal, making it a desired fuel source for efficiency. Having this much energy allows for a large population to readily use it. In a set of statistics taken in 2014, the US leads other countries, generating thirty-three percent of the world’s nuclear electricity, while France is next, with seventeen percent. Because the US leads with thirty-three percent, it shows how a large country can produce large amounts of nuclear energy and convert it into a resource for the population to use. It proves that there are alternative ways of creating energy without exploiting the use of fossil fuels and harming the environment. This becomes beneficial for the population to have a reliable and clean source of energy, but with having these resources of uranium, it is also used in nuclear weapons. In either instance, exploiting the national park for its resource should not become a possibility because of the radiation that uranium emits. This becomes a larger problem with countries like the US that lead the world with a third of its electricity being made from nuclear power. Having a high demand for electricity leads to a high demand from power plants to having a high demand of uranium. This chain of events then leads to businesses surveying land to find rich deposits, like the Grand Canyon. High demands for uranium begins to bring in the political side of the matter and whether the business can break ground. On lands like the Grand Canyon, there should not be any uranium mining, even if the mined uranium would be used for nuclear power.

While uranium is mined for purposes like energy used for electricity, there is the other use of nuclear power as a form of a weapon, and because of the chance that the mined uranium is used as a nuclear weapon, there should not be uranium mining in the Grand Canyon. Nuclear weapons were first sought after during World War II when the Allies feared German scientists were making such a weapon and they needed to match the power. Since then, the fear of the US not being able to match the nuclear power of other countries has been a driving force behind why the country may need these mass destruction weapons. Morally, there should be no use of a weapon like this, as seen in past uses by the US. During World War II, the US used two fission atomic bombs on Japan, one on Hiroshima, and the other on Nagasaki. Both cities felt a devastating impact and the effects of fallout. (Fallout is how nuclear materials that are released in the atmosphere fall back to the ground.) The attack on Nagasaki resulted in 73,884 casualties and about forty-seven percent of the city destroyed. Attacks like this not only impact the region under fire, but they also have lasting effects on society because of the aforementioned fallout effect. In the third stage of the fallout effect, radioactive particles are trapped in the stratosphere of the atmosphere. If radiation is trapped here, it can easily spread and harm others. While the radiation can contaminate many, the major effect of these bombs destroys communities and other people. Weapons such as these atomic bombs should not be used on people at all because of their devastating effects. If the US were to mine for uranium, there could be an argument for using it for clean energy, but based on current tensions with North Korea and their nuclear weapon advancements, there is a chance that any mined uranium could be used for atomic weapons. In an article from The National Interest, Harry J. Kazinanis writes that the only plausible way to deal with the nuclear arms battle with North Korea is to follow the Cold War-style and negotiate everything through peace. His article also explains scenarios where the nuclear weapons could be used. In his writing he states,

“The idea that the Trump administration should endorse a military solution--and a full-blown war if necessary--to degrade or destroy North Korea's nuclear-weapons program is acquiring a new prominence.”

Here Kazianis writes that the Trump administration could potentially endorse a military campaign to “destroy North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program” meaning that there is an interest in the government to begin funding its own nuclear weapons program. This would result in a higher demand for uranium, and it would increase demand for more uranium deposit claims pushing the Grand Canyon at a closer risk of destruction. Most of the scenarios that Kazianis predicts involve the US having to become involved in warfare with North Korea, which ultimately results in nuclear warfare. These predictions all would involve the need for more uranium to complete the atomic bombs and would then act as an argument to mine in the Grand Canyon because of its richness in uranium. Pushing the argument to mine near the Grand Canyon could then result in many other claims to gain profits from the national park. Even though there would be benefits from mining uranium to be used in nuclear power, there should not be the opportunity because of the dangers that the uranium could be used as nuclear weapons.

Along with the tensions over nuclear weapons, uranium mining has been a controversial topic in politics for a long time, particularly in debates about setting aside land to be preserved by the government that cannot be exploited for its resources. In the time that it has been debated, many advances have been made to help protect what the government has believed should belong to Americans. In 1906, Congress passed a law deeming that presidents may section off land in the US and title it as a national park or monument. This act was the Antiquities Act, and the object was to preserve historical land, scientific resources, and to be preserved for the public. As a result, many national parks and monuments were created, like that of the Grand Canyon. But, a part of the Antiquities Act states that the President must section off the minimum amount of land that would be needed in the preservation of the historical monument or scientific resource. Under this act, in 2012, former President Obama passed a ban on mining uranium within limits of the Grand Canyon in efforts to protect the land. But now, President Trump has alternative plans of revoking the ban and allowing others to mine the uranium-rich soil. By doing this, he will be creating hazards that were put in place “to protect Grand Canyon's watersheds from uranium mining pollution. Past uranium mining in the region has polluted soils, washes, aquifers and drinking water.” He would be allowing the destruction of a national park that many visitors flock to in order to see the natural wonder. The park would lose a large source of revenue, and the surrounding environment would also be contaminated by the mines. Doing this would eventually result in the death of the park, and the death of the ecosystem surrounding the mine. The radiation would contaminate the watershed of the area and affect the people who drink from the river and the organisms that use this land to survive. The buildings and the mine structures would also cause for the area around to be developed, taking away habitats from many animals and areas where other organisms, like plants, may survive. Destroying these habitats would result in a failing ecosystem and many of the organisms would need to be forcefully relocated. Adding these mines to the rim would ultimately result in these disasters because there are already hundreds of mines scattered throughout Navajo Nation; more than 500 are still abandoned and need to be decontaminated. The Trump administration should not pass this new law uplifting the ban on mining because the other mines that have not been tended to are crumbling away and contaminating other land when there is a possibility to revive them. There are already the resources to rehabilitate those mines and update them to current standards, and by doing this it would preserve the Grand Canyon and prevent more contamination into its watershed and the ecosystem. By going this route, it would prevent the government from having to pay for the environmental analysis of creating the new mines on the rim, when, “in fact, steps to reduce or remove the mining ban would cost taxpayer money.” It would be more economically effective for the Trump administration to leave the ban as it is, instead of trying to repeal it. Originally, the ban was created to preserve the area surrounding the Grand Canyon for twenty-years and the new proposal was supposed to cut down the ban and create revenue for private mining companies to supply uranium. But, because of the costs to create the new mines, there is a chance that the proposal would be denied and could leave the land in preservation. However, there are still many that believe that there was no science backing up Obama’s original ban and that it was purely a political move. In an article by Audry Hudson, Hudson states,

“[the] Obama administration officials banned mining across one million acres of the most uranium rich land in the United States for twenty years using questionable science to back up their claims that uranium production would adversely affect the environment.”

Claiming that the Obama administration passed a ban based on “questionable science” shows how the repeal of the ban is purely based on profit rather than the want to preserve the national park from the hazards that come with uranium mining. Extracting uranium from the earth ultimately alters the environment by destroying habitats for plants and animals, as stated in The Harnessed Atom. Understanding the concept of altering ecosystems will continue to support the ban and promote the preservation of the national park. Even if a method of extracting uranium from ore with minimal to no radiation deposits existed, the process of getting the machinery to the site and the buildings that are necessary to process the uranium to get it ready for transport to power plants still takes a lot of energy. All of this commotion in the park results in the destruction of an environment which in turn causes harm to the organisms who live in it and around it. It also takes away from the beauty of the national park that tourists are constantly visiting. Obama’s ban was created for the preservation of the Grand Canyon, and the Trump administration should not lift the ban because of the dangers of mining the uranium and for the preservation of the land.

Another challenge the Trump administration has presented is taking away protections from two million acres of protected lands in Utah, which means that national parks are no longer safe from being downsized in search for their resources they may provide. While the Grand Canyon is in Arizona, Trump’s challenge on national parks and preserved lands is prevalent across the states. In this 2-million-acre land rollback, he proposes, “possibly opening millions of preserved public acres to oil and gas extraction, mining, logging, and other commercial activities.” His actions to exploit this land show that his administration does not care about the preservation of natural area and instead looks to gain profits off the land that was created under the Antiquities Act. The deputy director of the Center for Western Priorities, Greg Zimmerman, states that “They’re doing this on behalf of special interests. When you look in terms of public access to recreation areas, there’s not a hunter or angler or outdoor recreationist who wants to be out and around a uranium mine.” Zimmerman simply states what most Americans would agree when visiting a park such as Bears Ears, or the Grand Canyon; they would not want to see uranium mines while at the monument. It is in this same act that Utah politicians have said, “the actions of previous presidents abused the law by exceeding that limit and were illegal.” This take away shows that the administration is not afraid to challenge the preservation of land in the pursuit of profit, but large outdoors name brands outspokenly disagreed with the actions made. Companies like Patagonia, REI, and North Face have made pledges to secure the preservation of American lands by speaking out, donating, and encouraging their customers to get involved. These brands are creating a movement amongst their customers: to speak out about their passions and their love for national parks and monuments. These messages are being spoken about in newspapers like in The Washington Post, which is helping to expose the intentions behind the two rollbacks.

“In a May 25 letter to the Interior Department, Chief Operating Officer Mark Chalmers wrote that the 1.35 million-acre expanse Obama created “could affect existing and future mill operations.” He later noted, “There are also many other known uranium and vanadium deposits located within the [original boundaries] that could provide valuable energy and mineral resources in the future.”

In this article by Juliet Eilperin, Eilperin reports that the land that is going to be rolled back on is rich in uranium and that there was originally a mine right outside of the boundaries. If the Trump administration did not hesitate to roll back the Bears Ears national park for this land to be used for the purpose of mining, then there is nothing holding them back from attempting to take away land from the Grand Canyon for mining purposes. On the other hand, these movements show how strong the citizens’ voices are and how communities surrounding national parks are working together to create change. The founder of Patagonia, Yvon Chouinard, said, “Public lands have never been more threatened than right now… This belongs to us, this belongs to all of the people in America.” Chouinard is not only speaking for the two monuments that the Trump administration downsized but for all national parks that are affected by today’s politics; much like the Grand Canyon. The Grand Canyon is being threatened by the repeal of Obama’s ban, which would result in the downsizing of the park and the radiation contamination involved with mining the uranium. Plus, there is still the abandoned mine shaft still located in the canyon that has not been removed or had efforts to clean it. If more outdoors retailers like Patagonia, North Face, and REI all spoke out about issues such as the downsizing of parks like the Grand Canyon who are under attack for the resources that the park contains, there could be much greater areas and lands that could become protected. Already existing areas like the Grand Canyon would also not have to be threatened with revocations of mining bans that were established to protect the area from environmental disasters. The Trump administration should not repeal the ban on uranium mining because it would only advance the revocation of many national parks.

From causing harm to the environment around it to affecting the water of people thousands of miles away, the process of mining uranium creates negative effects on living organisms throughout the country. Not only does it hurt the US directly, but it could potentially harm future countries the US may come into conflict with, or even nearby cities or towns that would suffer a nuclear meltdown from an uncontrolled power plant. Nothing about uranium is safe, even if it does have the benefit of being a clean source of energy. While other countries find uses for the element, the US should not allow uranium mining in the Grand Canyon because of the harmful properties uranium has, the horrible effects nuclear weapons have, the takeback on national park lands, and the environmental impacts that mining the uranium would have.

Appendix

 

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