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Uranium Mining Threatens Grand Canyon Communities

An orphan uranium mine at the Grand Canyon. (Photo: tbone_sandwich)

Flagstaff, Arizona – Over a thousand uranium mines have already contaminated water across the Southwest, poisoning communities with radiation that leads to cancer, harming the biodiversity of rivers and dissipating toxic ore dust into the air. Despite the immeasurable damage the mess of these abandoned mines has inflicted, including the official designation of the Four Corners as a “national sacrifice area,” the federal government and foreign mining companies want to continue uranium mining in the Grand Canyon.

Currently federal mineral land, this area of the Grand Canyon has been subjected to mining since 1872 due to the antiquated General Mining Law. In 2009, the federal government mandated a two-year moratorium on mining, protecting the land, surrounding communities and the Colorado River from any additional mine development.

With the moratorium's expiration date looming, pressure from foreign mining companies and the Bureau of Land Management's (BLM) history of allowing invalidated mines, the ecological health of the Grand Canyon vicinity could be at risk.

In February 2011, Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar proposed to withdraw one million acres of mineral land for 20 years, protecting the Grand Canyon vicinity from any mining. As part of this initiative, the Obama administration requested an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) of the area that would be affected by the mines.

In order to prepare Salazar for this influential decision, BLM conducted a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS), which outlines potential immediate and long-term impacts of mining on areas such as: surface and groundwater, cultural and tribal concerns, air quality, wildlife, vegetation and public health. They have also assessed the consequences of current uranium mining in the Grand Canyon watershed. The DEIS includes impacts resulting from the one million acre withdrawal, as well as smaller proposals for the area.

If the federal government blocks the withdrawal, sacred lands would be permanently scarred, including the Havasupai's Holy Red Butte. The Havasupai and Hualapai could be exposed to radiation – if not through their water, then through the air they breathe. Uranium trucks covered only in tarps would pass through indigenous lands carrying ore up to 12 times a day, four days a week. Toxic ore dust would be scattered into the air, or, if there was ever an accident, there could be a catastrophic spill of uranium. Certain species of fish, animals and plants would be threatened or driven to extinction. Any of these events could also jeopardize the economic livelihood of surrounding communities.

As the impacts of existing abandoned mines prove, the health of the Grand Canyon watershed and the Colorado River could be at stake. Thirty-four indigenous nations hold the river as a sacred place, while upwards of 27 million people drink water from the Colorado River.

A volunteer from the Sierra Club, Cynthia Pardo, believes that the EIS needs to give more attention to the human aspect of mining. “We see our energy crisis as being an economic issue, when it's a cultural issue, especially when it comes to tribal communities. People have survived and lived off this land far longer than we have, before we started laying claims and saying what is ours,” commented Pardo.

Denison Mines, a Canadian company with offices based in Canada, the United States, Zambia and Mongolia, is only one among many orchestrating plans for uranium mines. Klee Benally, an activist from Indigenous Media Action and Sacred Lands and guitarist from the acclaimed “alter-Native” punk-rock band Blackfire, wants people to recognize that if the withdrawal does not pass, there will be a slew of mining companies hoping to capitalize on the uranium.

“It is important to understand that this is just the tip of the iceberg. Right now there are only a handful of uranium mines that threaten to be opened, but there are thousands of permits that have been applied for opening uranium mines around the Grand Canyon area,” commented Benally.

Taylor McKinnon, public lands campaigns director from the Center for Biological Diversity, sees this as an exemplary opportunity to reform the 1872 mining law. “If there is any case, this is it. The issues are stark, the lines are bright.”

Andy Bessler from the Sierra Club reflected on how the history of uranium mining in the Southwest reveals probable effects for the future. In the Navajo nation alone, uranium mining has hurt more than 22 communities. He explained, “Their wells are contaminated. They can't get to their water. This contamination doesn't go away. That's what's really dangerous about this. It's really a water issue.” The recognition of this danger is growing, as Bessler pointed out. “Think about how many people are downstream of these wells; an entire watershed. Even Las Vegas [officials] have come out and supported us.”

Given the long history of uranium mining in the Grand Canyon and increasing federal support of nuclear energy mines around the country, many locals believe that there is a high chance of further uranium mining – yet the surrounding community stands in strong opposition to the mining and has no plans of conceding.

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Members of the Havasupai tribe, many of whom live in the Grand Canyon and have been fighting uranium mining for more than 25 years, organized the Bringing People Together, Stop Uranium Mining awareness concert on March 26 at the Orpheum Theater in Flagstaff.

Carletta Tilousi, a main organizer and a Havasupai tribal council member, commented on the purpose of the event. “This concert was to bring people together; to educate the community of Flagstaff and also neighboring tribes. There will be more support when people understand why the Havasupai have been fighting for so many years.”

Whether it was a coincidence or a response to the awareness concert, immediate signs of support fell into place. The day after the event, Flagstaff's city council passed a resolution endorsing the million-acre withdrawal to protect the Grand Canyon from mining. Five days later, BLM extended a deadline for public comment on the DEIS for 30 days, until May 4.

According to BLM, public commentary will be reviewed before completing the final EIS. In order for this to happen, people need to understand the issue, the DEIS and follow the guidelines for commenting, a challenging process that may be inaccessible for many people.

As Benally pointed out, “It's really important to connect the issues back to the community and to make sure people are empowered and aware of ways they can take action as well, because this is a community issue; it's a community threat.”

Voicing his incredulity with the mining proposals and the government's consideration, Benally stated, “There are thousands of uranium mines that are around the Navajo Nation that have been abandoned; nothing has been cleaned up. So why are the federal government and these mining corporations considering opening new mines when they haven't even cleaned up these other ones?”

Pardo hopes the federal government realizes that the negative effects of uranium mining outweigh the positive. “We turned over our natural resources and our energy to corporations and to agencies. Uranium mining is far too expensive. The costs in terms of water, land, air pollution, plant life, animal life and human life are way too high. These costs are not worth it,” she commented.

Benally stated, “I hope that people wake up and learn from tragedies like what happened in Japan, and of course we learn from Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. I hope people wise up and realize that we have no future in nuclear power. We have no future in being connected to uranium, from the weapons, to the waste, to the mining. It's unhealthy for our communities and it's totally unsustainable.”

Evan Hawbaker of Flagstaff's Taala Hooghan Infoshop sees uranium mining as yet another facet of government exploitation that continues the legacy of environmental injustice. Hawbaker commented, “Uranium intersects on all sorts of different issues – it intersects as a colonial force, an imperial force, an issue of oppression … this issue just really echoes issues that affect everybody.”

Benally emphasized that mining at the Grand Canyon is not just an indigenous peoples or an environmental issue.

“Everybody has a stake in this. The issue is not going to be won by the environmental groups alone or by the nonprofits; it's going to be won by the communities…. We need a healthy future and we need to come together and establish what that means in a meaningful way with our communities in revelation with each other and Mother Earth.”

Tilousi agreed, saying more people need to know about the potential hazards of uranium mining. “This does not just have an effect on the Havasupai – this should matter to all Arizonans. We need to say no to uranium.”

In the wake of Japan's nuclear disaster, the threat of uranium mining in the Grand Canyon has taken on a new urgency, calling attention to the underlying problems of nuclear power and the United States' energy consumption. Benally asks, “Why are we trying to sustain unsustainable lifestyles? [There needs to be a] critical lifestyle shift, and that comes down to us – individuals stepping up and owning our responsibilities and our insatiable appetites. I think that if people wake up and do that, we won't need this much energy.”

To help stop uranium mining in the Grand Canyon, comment on the DEIS at

For a list of other ways to become involved, visit

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