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The reopening of an uranium mine in Arizona has Indigenous people worried

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

There's a new push to mine more uranium in the U.S. It's rooted in a growing demand for more nuclear power plants to curb climate change. And that's become an incentive for reopening an old uranium mine near Grand Canyon National Park, but Native people in the area are wary of the industry's deadly past. From member station KJZZ, Michel Marizco reports.

MICHEL MARIZCO, BYLINE: About a year ago, investment groups started getting more interested in acquiring uranium companies to address climate change. Then, in February, Russia invaded Ukraine. Talk about the U.S. sanctioning Russian uranium pushed prices higher, says Scott Melbye, president of the Uranium Producers of America.

SCOTT MELBYE: The faster we move away from those supplies, the better, for many reasons, both humanitarian and business-wise.

MARIZCO: Russia and former Soviet republics supply nearly half of all U.S. nuclear fuel now. But Curtis Moore, vice president of marketing for the mining company Energy Fuels, says there's plenty of uranium in the U.S.

CURTIS MOORE: It just so happens that some of America's best uranium deposits are in northern Arizona.

MARIZCO: Uranium was first mined in this area when the U.S. was developing its atomic bombs used in World War II. Its legacy is controversial. Native people working in the mines started reporting higher lung cancer rates. A uranium mine waste pond collapsed here in 1979, releasing more radiation than the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant failure. Moore says mining practices are safer now, and there are more environmental controls.

MOORE: We can't control where the good uranium or rare earth deposits, which - you know, and vanadium, which are the three critical minerals that we focus on - we can't control where they're found in nature.

(SOUNDBITE OF PUMP RUNNING)

MARIZCO: Stuart Chavez is deeply skeptical.

STUART CHAVEZ: This location that was only used for ceremonial purposes - that's now been tarnished and tainted - was our heirloom.

MARIZCO: Chavez is a councilman of the Havasupai Nation, people who live at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. We're at a chain-link fence in the quiet and shade of the Kaibab National Forest, posted with no-trespassing signs. The hum of a giant pump cuts through the still air. A sign proclaims this site Energy Fuels' Pinyon Plain Mine. The Havasupai Nation has another name for it.

CHAVEZ: It's Mat Taav Tijundva - a gathering point.

MARIZCO: Earlier mining by the company pierced an aquifer here, so now it pumps water heavy with uranium and arsenic into a lined holding pond. Water is at the source of the tribe's conflict with Energy Fuels. They live downstream and want the mine to stay closed.

CHAVEZ: If they continue to operate and pull out ore, there's a high chance - there's a likelihood that that water could trickle on down into Supai. That's what we're afraid of.

MARIZCO: Energy Fuels points to a study from the U.S. Geological Survey that found, in spite of the mined uranium, 95% of groundwater sites tested in the Grand Canyon met drinking water standards. The scientist who wrote the report cautions it's not definitive. But in April, Arizona's Department of Environmental Quality granted Energy Fuels a vital environmental permit. Trevor Baggiore is a department director.

TREVOR BAGGIORE: The record plainly demonstrates - and ADEQ agrees - that the adverse impacts to groundwater from the mine are extremely unlikely.

MARIZCO: He said the permit addressed the tribe's concerns, but he is aware the Havasupai still oppose reopening the uranium mine.

BAGGIORE: From the stories that I've read that - it's clearly not satisfactory to have the mine in existence at all.

MARIZCO: Baggiore says the state is requiring Energy Fuels to drill extra groundwater monitoring wells and to keep checking the water 30 years after the mine closes. A 2012 moratorium on new mining operations on 1 million acres of public land near the Grand Canyon is still in effect. But because this mine was already operating, it was grandfathered. Now, Amber Reimondo with the Grand Canyon Trust, a conservation group, points out that the 2 1/2 million pounds of uranium that's estimated to be here is worth a lot more money.

AMBER REIMONDO: It's very convenient, I think, for uranium miners with mines in the United States to oversimplify and juxtapose themselves that it's either them or Russia.

MARIZCO: The danger here, she says, is to the Havasupai.

Standing outside a sweat lodge in the forest a few miles south of the mine, Carletta Tilousi, a former tribal councilwoman, points out a looming lava-capped protrusion in the near distance - Red Butte, a Havasupai provenance the tribe calls...

CARLETTA TILOUSI: Wii'i Gdwiisa. Wii'i Gdwiisa is the lungs of our Mother Earth, and all we want is it to be protected. We want it to be left alone.

MARIZCO: This is where the tribe was born, she said, and where its people are buried. Energy Fuels says it hasn't yet decided when it will open the mine. For NPR News, I'm Michel Marizco, reporting from Kaibab National Forest. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.