SAcres of Native American landmarks such as the Grand Canyon and Bears Ears can seem far removed from the devastation unfolding in Ukraine. But as the United States considers banning Russian uranium, which is part of the economic levers to stop Putin’s war, indigenous communities living near American mines could pay the price.
John Barrasso, a senator from Wyoming, recently introduced a bill that calls for a ban on all forms of uranium imported from Russia. Uranium fuels US nuclear power plants, and about 20% of it comes from Russia, while nearly another 30% is imported from Russian allies Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
Such a ban would result in an overdrive of US uranium production. In an op-ed in the Casper Star Tribune, Barrasso pointed out that the United States has “vast uranium resources,” including in Wyoming, but that 90% of the uranium used in nuclear power plants is imported. “Rather than letting our uranium lie in the ground, we should use it,” he wrote. A longtime advocate for the uranium industry, Barrasso also wrote that continuing to buy Russian uranium was funding “Putin’s killing machine.”
Mining companies are now ready, with the option of ramping up production at sites near the Grand Canyon, Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, and several locations in Barrasso’s home state of Wyoming. Many operations pose environmental and spiritual threats to indigenous communities who live near mines and have struggled for their existence for decades.
Amber Reimondo, director of energy at the nonprofit Grand Canyon Trust, said the Senate proposal risks “perpetuating environmental injustices on our own soil.”
“If this ban is to save lives, the answer cannot simply be to increase uranium production in the United States,” Reimondo said. said. “The response must involve respecting and genuinely listening to communities on the front lines of uranium production, especially indigenous communities… Otherwise, it is not about protecting human life. It’s about protecting profits.
An opportunity that has been brewing for decades
When the Cold War began in the late 1940s, the federal government sparked a uranium boom in the United States by offering generous incentives to private mining companies and guaranteeing a purchase price for the ore. By the mid-1950s, more than 750 mines were in operation, mostly in and around Native American reservations in the southwest where rich deposits of uranium were found. Until 1971, the US government was the main buyer of uranium as it built up its military arsenal. Many Native Americans worked in mines, which were poorly regulated and offered few safety protections for employees or the environment.
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, cheap uranium flooded the world market, effectively ending more expensive American uranium mining operations. But with the price of imported uranium rising after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – from $17 a pound in 2017 to nearly $60 a pound in recent days – domestic mining companies see a unique opportunity. .
Denver-based Energy Fuels Resources, the second-largest uranium producer in the United States, told investors in mid-March that the war in Ukraine could improve the company’s bottom line. “With recent events in Ukraine, security of uranium supply to the United States is critical,” Mark Chalmers, the company’s president and CEO, said in a webcast. He added that for the first time in years, the suddenly favorable trading environment had allowed uranium sales contracts to be pursued with “prices and terms that yield acceptable project margins.”
According to Energy Fuels spokesman Curtis Moore, the company has a total of six uranium mining facilities in Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. which are fully licensed and licensed, and could go into production pending a viable sales agreement with a nuclear power company.
Pinyon Plain Mine (formerly called Canyon Mine) has been waiting for such a moment for 35 years. Although the company built most of the mine infrastructure and obtained all permits, not a kilo of ore was ever mined because uranium prices remained too low.
The mine occupies 17 acres in the Kaibab National Forest, 9 miles from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon and 3 miles from Red Butte. The rust-colored monument rising from the Coconino Plateau is the spiritual center of the Havasupai people who have lived in the Grand Canyon for more than 800 years. The 754-member tribe has been fighting the mine since it was first authorized in 1986. In addition to fears about environmental and health risks, there is also significant spiritual harm from the mine that , according to the tribesmen, are devastating but have been rejected by the federal government. the courts, the mining company and government regulators.
“We have a belief system that they don’t understand,” says Havasupai elder Carletta Tilousi, who has been involved in mine action for decades and also sits on Joe Biden’s environmental justice advisory board in the White House. “In our stories, the area where the mine is located is the lungs of Mother Earth. So when they dug the mine shaft, they punctured his lungs.
In 2016, Energy Fuels completed sinking a mine shaft 1,400 feet deep. The operation inadvertently punctured an aquifer that has flooded the mine shaft ever since. About 40 million gallons of water with high levels of uranium and arsenic have been managed at the site, where a lined basin holds the water before it is sprayed into the air to evaporate. Environmentalists and the Havasupai argue the toxic water could eventually find its way into a deep aquifer that supplies the tribe with drinking water and food springs in Grand Canyon National Park. If the mine starts extracting uranium ore, the possibility of contamination will become exponentially greater.
Asked about the controversy over the Pinyon Plain mine and its potential impact on Indigenous communities, Moore attributed the negative claims to environmental groups. “There are activists who like to spread a lot of false information about groundwater pollution or air pollution,” he said. “But that’s just not true.”
Reimondo points out that even though Energy Fuels is not currently in violation of Arizona Department of Environmental Quality regulations, the water coming out of the mine shaft still contains levels of uranium and arsenic that are about 30 times the amount considered safe by the EPA. for drinking water. And there is always the possibility that the pond containing all that water could cause a leak.
“The risk of an accident is theoretical with regulators until it actually happens,” says Reimondo.
Ore mined from the Pinyon Plain mine would be trucked to Energy Fuels’ White Mesa Mill, a processing facility in southeast Utah adjacent to the Ute Mountain Ute community and near the Bears Ears National Monument. As the only operational uranium mill in the United States, White Mesa’s processing activity is expected to increase significantly with increased domestic uranium production. The 40-year-old plant also produces uranium by extracting it from industrial waste and stores the remains of radioactive materials on site.
Like the Havasupai, the Ute Mountain Ute fear that their drinking water will be contaminated by the mill. And they are afraid to pick traditional plants in the region or even let their children play outside when the air smells bad. In August 2021, the tribe passed a resolution stating that White Mesa Mill must be closed in order to protect the health of the community. But that request was not followed by Utah government officials.
“How can we ensure that the tribesmen can get clean water when the radioactive waste is only a few kilometers away?” asks Manuel Heart, the president of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe.
A threat that could linger for years
Industry representatives counter that fears about uranium mining operations are misguided and based on poor Cold War-era practices rather than modern technologies in use today. “Any mine that would meet this current demand has passed the permitting gauntlet with very high American standards,” says Scott Melbye, president of the Uranium Producers of America trade group. “The United States can do it much better, safer and cleaner than developed countries that don’t care about the environment or indigenous communities. We are the world leaders in 21st century mining practices in terms of health and safety.
However, Reimondo of the Grand Canyon Trust points out that health and safety regulations only focus on monitoring for a short time, while exposed uranium can pose an environmental hazard for hundreds or thousands. of years. The Pinyon Plain mine is expected to have an operational life of four to seven years, followed by a seven-year post-closure monitoring program.
“The threat of a uranium mine doesn’t end when it closes,” she says. “In fact, this could be the start of the real threat because there is no one left.”
Hundreds of abandoned uranium mines remain on the Navajo reservation after operations spanning the 1950s through the 1980s, when the US military built up its Cold War arsenal. Cancer from contaminated groundwater is common on the reservation, and a recent study underway by the University of New Mexico found that many Navajo women and their babies have high levels of radioactive metal in their systems.
Uncertainty remains as to whether the uranium ban will materialize. According to Senator Barrasso’s spokesman, the bill has not yet been scheduled for a committee hearing, but “he will seek every opportunity to get it passed.” And although Biden has banned imports of Russian oil, gas and coal, he has not announced any policies regarding Russian uranium.
Either way, the Havasupai, who call themselves “Guardians of the Grand Canyon,” are ready for a fight.
“You may have taken the ground from under our feet, but we’re still here,” says Tilousi. “We are a small tribe with a very big voice.”