As demand for uranium grows in countries around the world, environmental groups are trying to make sure uranium mining doesn’t damage one of the most valued natural areas in the United States: the Grand Canyon. Though famous for breathtaking landscapes and majestically beautiful geologic features, the public lands surrounding the Grand Canyon also have a less well-known geologic property: they are richer in uranium than almost any other place in North America. The Obama administration is now choosing from a variety of plans that could help protect the Grand Canyon watershed from expanded uranium mining. But only one of the options on the table would preserve the entire area.
Demand for uranium has gone up as more countries, especially fast-growing economies in the developing world, turn to nuclear power to meet their energy needs. However while the risks of nuclear plant accidents have drawn plenty of media coverage—especially after the Fukushima plant disaster in Japan—the environmental impacts of uranium mining have received far less attention. In fact uranium extraction can be extremely hazardous for both miners and surrounding communities, exposing local water supplies to contamination from radioactive mining waste.
At the same time noisy, disruptive mining activity could be damaging to the tourist economy in the Grand Canyon area. Tourism Grand Canyon National Park generates over $687 million annually for the economy in Arizona, and support the equivalent of 12,000 full-time jobs. According to the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter, “The negative impacts of large scale mining development, with the attendant noise pollution, air pollution, and traffic generated by mining activities, could seriously degrade the visitor experiences at Grand Canyon National Park.”
Uranium mining would also affect wildlife species that live in and around Grand Canyon National Park. Sensitive species in the area include the bald eagle, peregrine falcon, Mexican spotted owl, bighorn sheep, and desert tortoise. Each of these species could be negatively impacted by mining activity itself, the contamination of groundwater with uranium, or the building of roads needed to provide access to mines.
Due to concern about mining impacts in the Grand Canyon, the Obama administration took temporary action to halt uranium mining in 2009. Under the direction of Secretary Ken Salazar, the US Department of the Interior put a two-year hold on new mining claims in the Grand Canyon area, to allow time for developing a plan to limit environmental destruction. Now with the expiration date for the moratorium fast approaching, the Obama administration is considering permanent protections for all or part of the Grand Canyon’s watershed.
Organizations like the Center for Biological Diversity and Environment America are urging the administration to adopt Alternative B, the only option up for consideration that would protect all one million acres of the watershed. Anything less, they fear, would result in mining projects that could eventually contaminate one of the country’s most famous national parks while polluting local water supplies. According to Environment America, “Toxic mining threatens to wreak havoc on the Grand Canyon, destroying the landscape, polluting rivers and streams that feed the Colorado River, threatening fragile ecosystems, and contaminating the drinking water for more than 25 million Americans.”
As environmental groups and conservationists push for the entire watershed to be protected, the mining and nuclear industries are likely to urge large areas be left open to mining. The Obama administration is taking public comments through May 4th on its plan for protecting the Grand Canyon, which includes Alternative B as one of the options. The administration’s final decision will determine the level of protection afforded to the area surrounding one of America’s best-loved and most-visited national parks.
Photo credit: flickr.com/photos/8529320@N03/3685358987