Energy & Environment

Trump administration signals support for uranium mining that could touch Grand Canyon

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The Trump administration is signaling a renewed push to consider uranium mining near the Grand Canyon, a move that would undoubtedly ignite a political fight involving environmentalists and the mining industry.

President Trump’s decision to declare uranium a critical mineral for national security purposes, coupled with a Commerce Department recommendation to mine reserves of a key component to nuclear weapons, has environmentalists worried that the reversal of an Obama-era ban on mining near the cherished national park is imminent.

“It’s not a secret that uranium mining companies have pined after the Grand Canyon for a long time,” said Amber Reimondo, energy program director at Grand Canyon Trust. “The last time there was a uranium price spike in 2007, over 10,000 mining claims were filed.”

{mosads}Critics question the timing of the potential reversal: The Grand Canyon is nearing its peak visitation period in the summer months, and the price of uranium is at its lowest level in more than a decade. They also argue that the recent developments underscore the close relationship between the uranium mining industry and the administration.

Opening up mining near the Grand Canyon would also have political implications for 2020, particularly with Arizona becoming a battleground in races for both the White House and control of the Senate. So far, Democrats have sided with environmentalists in their opposition to mining in the area, while Republicans point to potential for job creation.

The administration first indicated in 2017 that it was looking at steps to boost uranium production. Trump that year signed an executive order to ensure there was suitable supplies of what the administration deemed “critical minerals,” or minerals and elements considered key to national security.

At the time, there were 23 minerals on the list of critical minerals. Six months later the Interior Department expanded it to 35 and added uranium for the first time.

The Commerce Department last week took another step by issuing a recommendation to help speed up production of all essential minerals on the list.

The mining industry is now awaiting one final step: Trump’s decision on whether to approve a January 2018 petition filed by two of the country’s top uranium producers — Energy Fuels and Ur-Energy — to enact a 25 percent purchasing quota for domestic uranium.

{mossecondads}The administration is expected to announce its decision next month, and it does not need congressional approval.

The uranium around the Grand Canyon is considered some of the highest grade in the U.S. But it’s not a seller’s market.

The average price of uranium last year was about $30 a pound, down from about $100 in 2007.

Approval of the 2018 petition, however, would benefit struggling uranium mining companies by forcing the defense industry and power sector to purchase the element domestically instead of from foreign sources like Australia and Canada.

“The companies have been pushing for a number of things to get the prices up, like including uranium in the list of critical minerals. It’s definitely an effort by companies like Energy Fuels — which has lands around the Grand Canyon — to get those uranium prices,” said Sandy Bahr at the Sierra Club.

“There is no royalty on hard rock mineral,” Bahr added. “There is almost nothing that is returned to the public from these mines on public lands.”

Paul Goranson, chief operating officer of Energy Fuels, the largest uranium producer in the U.S., defended uranium’s inclusion on the list of critical minerals.

“Uranium has always been a key part of our national security organization and priorities,” he told The Hill. “We built the massive Manhattan Project to take that material for military uses and nuclear power generation — we think it aligns.”

Energy Fuels holds 84 claims on mines within the Grand Canyon mining ban boundary and aims to gain immensely if the Obama-era moratorium is lifted.

Environmentalists view the administration’s support for mining as a move toward reversing the 20-year moratorium on uranium withdrawals from 1 million acres of land surrounding the Grand Canyon that was instituted in 2012.

The U.S. Geological Survey in 2009 estimated that the area eventually affected by the moratorium held about 326 million pounds of uranium, or 12 percent of the total undiscovered uranium in Northern Arizona.

Goranson said a green light from Trump could also lead to new employment. The company estimates that around 1,180 mining jobs could be created if their petition is approved.

“We’ve seen a dramatic decline in the robustness of the nuclear infrastructure — we no longer have U.S. technology in enrichment, our sole conversion plant shut down and the uranium mining industry has been in decline,” said Goranson. “That is what is creating what we see as a real gap in our industrial base.”

Uranium mining, like all forms of mining, poses a risk to neighboring ground water sources. Critics worry that renewed mining around the Grand Canyon would lead to uranium leaching that could contaminate drinking water for both park visitors and the Native American tribes who live in the surrounding area.

“The legacy there is pretty toxic, sadly. You’ve seen water contamination as a result of the mining of uranium in the region. There are some serious public health threats and contamination to water. From soup to nuts, this is a real threat to public health and the well-being of those communities,” said Bahr.

The mining industry has long argued the water would not be significantly affected.

The issue of lifting the mining moratorium near the Grand Canyon surfaced briefly last year when former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, under pressure from conservationists, indicated he would not revisit the ban.

“The Secretary has no intention to revisit uranium mining in and around the canyon and has made exactly zero moves to suggest otherwise,” former Interior spokeswoman Heather Swift tweeted at the time.

However, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, a former energy lobbyist whose clients included mining companies, has made no such pledge.

According to publicly released calendar entries, Bernhardt held multiple appointments in 2017 and 2018 with the National Mining Association, including a lunch with organization’s CEO, when he was deputy secretary.

An Interior spokesperson told The Hill that Bernhardt’s position is that there’s no reason to support lifting the ban. But the decision is ultimately Trump’s.

The White House offered no comment.

In Congress, Democrats are pushing to expand the existing moratorium.

House Democrats this month introduced a bill designed to prohibit hard rock mining for the next 100 years in the same area affected by the 2012 ban.

The legislation sparked a political fight between lawmakers who see mining as a threat to public land, and those who see it as an economic opportunity.

“The people of Arizona know the facts — that uranium mining is a threat to our precious water resources, to our tribal communities, and to one of our greatest national treasures,” said House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) during a hearing last week on his bill, the Grand Canyon Centennial Protection Act.

Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.) argued that the administration was making a weak case in its push for new mining.

“Currently, over half of our uranium supplies come from our strongest allies — we’re talking about Australia and Canada — while the U.S. Department of Energy estimates that we already have access to enough uranium to meet our military needs until 2060,” he said at the hearing.

Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.), however, argued that the current ban, coupled with an extended moratorium, would hurt his state’s economy, a viewpoint the mining industry is hoping Trump will embrace.

“The canyon and people are protected and the economic benefit of over $29 billion and the security of our nation is what’s at stake,” Gosar said last week.

“You can have your clean air, clean water and mining too,” he added. “It would seem to me that it would be better to take it out than to leave it in.”

Tags Alan Lowenthal Donald Trump Paul Gosar Ryan Zinke

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