A coalition of influential officials in Arizona and Utah is urging the Trump administration to consider rolling back Obama-era environmental protections that ban new uranium mining near the Grand Canyon.
They argue that the 20-year ban that came into effect in 2012 is unlawful and stifles economic opportunity in the mining industry. But supporters of the ban say new mining activity could increase the risk of uranium-contaminated water flowing into the canyon. Past mining in the region has left hundreds of polluted sites among Arizona’s Navajo population, leading to serious health consequences, including cancer and kidney failure.
The new appeal to the Trump administration appears in the draft of a letter expected to be sent on Monday to the US interior secretary, Ryan Zinke, by the Mohave County board of supervisors, whose region borders the north side of the Grand Canyon in Arizona. Similar letters are being drawn up by other regional leaders in neighboring county governments in southern Utah, to be sent to Washington by the end of the week, according to officials.
The Mohave County leaders also plan to dispatch a second letter on Monday asking the federal government to scrap national monument protections for lands of natural wonder “throughout Arizona”, claiming their designation is unconstitutional and prevents economic development of coal, oil and gas deposits. Utah leaders will follow with letters requesting the government shrink national monuments in southern Utah, such as Bears Ears and Grand Escalante, in order to open up a greater area for mineral exploitation, the Guardian has learned.
The battle to restore mining activity near the Grand Canyon is part of broader push by conservatives to roll back protections on America’s 640m acres of public land. Earlier this year, Congress reversed the Bureau of Land Management’s “Planning 2.0” rule, an Obama-era initiative that gave the public greater input on how land should be used. At the same time, Zinke has ended the moratorium on federal coal leases while pledging to open up public lands to greater oil and gas extraction. Trump has also ordered Zinke to review 27 national monument designations and report as to whether some parks might be reversed or reduced in size.
Carletta Tilousi of the Havasupai tribal council told the Guardian: “We are already one of the smallest tribes in the country with just 775 people, and our stories of living down in the Grand Canyon go back to the beginning of time.
“We are faced with the potential dangers of uranium contamination into our sole water supply, (local) testing in other areas has already shown traces of uranium from mining in the Grand Canyon region, and I don’t think we would be able to survive an environmental catastrophe here, I just don’t know where we would go,” she added. The Havasupai territory is renowned for its turquoise waterfalls, fed by the water source now under threat.
The Mohave County board’s letter says that “the mining of uranium does not affect ground water nor destroy the natural resources of the land”.
The new letters to Zinke are on the Mohave board’s public agenda and will be presented for final approval at a supervisors’ meeting scheduled for Monday morning.
Board chairman Gary Watson told the Guardian on Friday that he was confident of winning a majority of votes among the five county supervisors.
“I think the Trump administration is very interested in looking at the situation. A number of companies are very anxious to get in there and start extracting uranium. There is no danger,” he said.
He plans to follow up those requests within six months with an appeal to the federal government to open up national forest land in his region for logging, he said.
The letter also points out that uranium has many military uses and could inject $29bn into the area economy over 42 years. “This ban took away much needed growth and jobs from our area … These [uranium] deposits represent the last available use of our public lands for economic growth … Environmental laws already on the books will protect the public from damage to the Grand Canyon watershed,” the letter says.
That and the letter requesting the lifting of national monument titles for the Vermilion Cliffs area in northern Arizona, Parashant, which straddles the Arizona-Utah border, and the Sonoran desert near Phoenix, were signed by Watson and were already initialed by the county attorney and county manager.
When Barack Obama’s interior secretary, Ken Salazar, banned new mining claims on a million acres of land surrounding the Grand Canyon for 20 years in 2012, he said it was “the right approach for this priceless American landscape” to protect if for the 5 million annual visitors to Grand Canyon national park, nearby Native American communities and millions more who rely on the Colorado river flowing through it.
Although there are thousands of older claims for uranium in the area, related regulations prohibit speculative drilling for the deep-seated mineral, according to Ted Zukoski, a lawyer with campaign group Earthjustice.
That factor and an extended slump in the uranium market has kept mining largely at bay recently.
But Salazar’s ban brought a legal challenge from the National Mining Association and others, and a decision is expected on that from the ninth circuit court of appeals soon.
And work began in 2015 to reopen the dormant Canyon Mine six miles from the south rim of the Grand Canyon, close to tourist areas and water sources for the Havasupai people, who have lived at the bottom of the canyon for millennia.
Obama was lobbied in vain to name a large area around the Grand Canyon a national monument in 2016, which would have stopped all mining permanently.
During that debate it emerged that the libertarian Koch brothers were reported to be channeling funds to the pro-development lobby in Arizona.
Mohave County previously created the Arizona-Utah local economic coalition alongside four counties in southern Utah – Kane, Washington, San Juan and Garfield – and letters will be sent to Zinke from the coalition and from the individual counties later this week, supporting Mohave’s request to lift the uranium ban and also asking for the right to exploit minerals within national monument areas in the region, Jim Matson, Kane county commissioner, told the Guardian last Friday.
“These restrictions have been opportunity killers. Economic development on our public lands is terribly important,” he said.
Opponents are skeptical.
“That’s ridiculous,” said Roger Clark, program director of the Grand Canyon Trust, an environmental campaign group. “Every time we look for evidence we find contamination, 100% of the time.”
The devastating health impacts of mining on Arizona’s Navajo population have left many wary of the industry. “I don’t think we have certainty on the safety of uranium mining. We’ve seen the terrible legacy on the Navajo reservation. The industry argues procedures have changed and are completely safe now, but I’m not convinced,” said Flagstaff councilwoman Celia Barotz.
Clark argued that the Mohave County board’s estimates of economic benefits from uranium mining were “grossly inflated” and far outweighed by the risks and the eyesore of mining works and truck traffic.
Coconino County, adjacent to Mohave County and including Grand Canyon national park, rejected a uranium mining application on public lands in 2013, saying the industry had created “significant risks” to public health with “no measurable benefits” and estimated that the boost of any jobs created would be canceled out with loss of tourism revenue.
“Arizona is called the Grand Canyon state. Well, duh,” Clark said.