Joe Biden’s new monument near the Grand Canyon stops some — but not all — uranium mining

US President Joe Biden is greeted as he arrives at Grand Canyon National Park Airport in Grand Canyon Village, Arizona, on August 7th, 2023.  | Photo by JIM WATSON / AFP via Getty Images

The Biden administration announced the creation of a new national monument surrounding the Grand Canyon in the hopes of protecting it from mining and development. But that still won’t stop a controversial mine from producing uranium within the monument’s boundaries.

Biden’s designation of a new national monument is expected to protect nearly 1 million acres of land and stop new mining and development. But with mining rights already grandfathered in, the existing Pinyon Plain Mine is an exception.

The mine has been at the center of a decades-long fight over the future of domestic uranium production and nuclear energy in the US. Uranium has already contaminated land and water in the Southwest, making people sick. The Havasupai Tribe and environmental advocates have fought to stop the same thing from happening near the Grand Canyon.

“Although there is still more work to do, we will sleep easier tonight knowing that our water, sacred sites, and plant medicines are more protected, and that our ancestors’ tears are finally tears of happiness,” Thomas Siyuja Sr, chair for the Havasupai Tribe, said in a statement.

President Joe Biden signed a proclamation today establishing the new national monument called Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni – Ancestral Footprints of the Grand Canyon National Monument in northern Arizona. It encompasses three areas just south, northeast, and northwest of Grand Canyon National Park. Baaj nwaavjo, in the Havasupai language, translates to “where Indigenous peoples roam” in English. I’tah kukveni, in the language of the Hopi Tribe, means “our ancestral footprints” in English.

The designation is supposed to protect thousands of cultural and sacred sites tied to a at least a dozen tribal nations, including the Havasupai Tribe. Many of the tribes had lobbied to create the national monument. It “helps address injustices of the past, including when Tribes were forcibly removed from lands that later became Grand Canyon National Park,” a White House fact sheet says.

There’s been a ban on uranium mining in the area since 2012, but that was set to expire in 2032. With a national monument in place, that temporary ban becomes permanent. The area reportedly holds about 1.3 percent of US uranium reserves.

Despite the new protections, the designation of a national monument won’t infringe on existing mining claims that predated the 2012 ban. “The two approved mining operations within the boundaries of the monument would be able to operate,” according to the fact sheet.

Pinyon Plain Mine, a little over 10 miles from the south rim of the Grand Canyon, was permitted in 1986. A company called Energy Fuels holds the rights to mine uranium and copper there but has yet to produce any uranium. It has faced legal battles, protests by tribes and environmental groups, and stiff competition from foreign uranium suppliers for years.

But after recent court victories and growing interest in securing domestic uranium supplies (in part to avoid buying it from Russia), Energy Fuels tells Bloomberg Law that it plans to start production within the next couple of years. “It just doesn’t seem like great policy to be locking up our best uranium deposits,” Energy Fuels vice president Curtis Moore said.

The Cold War-era boom in uranium mining left Navajo Nation land pockmarked with more than 500 abandoned mines. Pollution around the mines has been linked to kidney disease, cancer, and a neuropathic syndrome in children.

“We know from firsthand experience the damage that can be caused by yellow dirt contaminating our water and poisoning our animals and our children,” said Buu Nygren, president of Navajo Nation, in a statement. “The Grand Canyon is too important to not protect.”

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