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In Blow to 'Water, Culture, Wildlife,' Feds Back Re-Opening of Grand Canyon Uranium Mine

The Forest Service shouldn't be "shielding the uranium industry’s dangerous plans from public, tribal, environmental and scientific scrutiny,” warned conservation group

- Lauren McCauley, staff writer

Risking "water, culture and wildlife," the US Forest Service is reportedly backing the re-opening of a uranium mine near the Grand Canyon's South Rim.

The “Canyon” uranium mine, seen here in the foreground, with Grand Canyon National Park six miles to its north. (Photo: Bruce Gordon/ Ecoflight) The Guardian reported Tuesday that despite a 2012 ban on hard-rock mining, the uranium mining firm Energy Fuels Resources "has been given federal approval to reopen its old Canyon Mine," located just six miles south of the canyon's South Rim entrance.

Though Canyon Mine clearly falls within the 1-million-acre “mineral withdrawal” approved by the Obama administration in January 2012 to protect the Grand Canyon’s watershed, the federal government is backing Energy Fuels Resources' claim that the ban does not apply because their rights have been "grandfathered in" and have "valid existing rights" to mine. 

“The agency should be a steward of these lands and their resources, not a broker for the uranium mining industry,” said Sandy Bahr, regional director for Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter.

In anticipation of the decision, indigenous and environmental groups filed suit in March claiming the government's assessment is based on an "outdated" 1986 Forest Service study which claimed that potential groundwater and spring contamination by mining operations was "extremely unlikely."

The groups, which include the Grand Canyon Trust, the Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity and the local Havasupai tribe, argue that the rights to the mine were granted "before science was able to show the full potential impact of uranium mining."

Describing the failure to consider new, more comprehensive groundwater studies as "unconscionable," Roger Clark of the Grand Canyon Trust charges that “groundwater pollution will wind up either flowing directly into the Canyon or contaminating the sole source of water for the Havasupai Tribe and ultimately the Colorado River.”

Further, he adds that uranium's radioactive properties become dangerous once exposed to air and water. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, one effect is the emission of radon gas which, the Guardian reports, "was not regulated when the government conducted its initial study of the mine in 1986."

In addition to the great environmental risk, the mine also falls within the boundaries of the sacred Red Butte Traditional Cultural Property, designated by the Forest Service in 2010 as a place of critical religious and cultural importance to several tribes, including the Havasupai.

“It’s sacred to us, and we have been mandated by our people—and our ancestors—to protect the site,” said Tribal Vice Chairman Matthew Putesoy Sr.

“The Forest Service should be protecting the Grand Canyon instead of shielding the uranium industry’s dangerous plans from public, tribal, environmental and scientific scrutiny,” said Taylor McKinnon with the Center for Biological Diversity in an earlier statement announcing the suit. “Sacrificing water, culture and wildlife for the uranium industry was a bad idea in 1986, doing so now while ignoring 27 years of new information is absurd.”

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