Uranium Mining in the Grand Canyon

A NextGen Blog post by Johanna Mitra, Stonybrook University.
All Photos © Alison M. Jones, unless otherwise noted.

This is the latest post to our NWNL NEXTGEN BLOG series. Since 2007, NWNL has supported watershed education with college internships and blogging opportunities. This NWNL NEXTGEN BLOG series posts student essays; sponsors a forum for our student contributors; and invites upper-level students to propose work focused on watershed values, threats and solutions.

Johanna Mitra is currently an undergraduate student at Stony Brook University. She is majoring in ecosystems and human impact with a focus on wildlife conservation and minoring in geospatial science. Read her earlier posts here.


The Grand Canyon, located in the Colorado River Basin, remains one of the most recognized US National Parks. Annually, it brings in around 6 million visitors and $1.2 billion in tourism. Thus it is an incredibly important facet of Arizona’s natural history and economy.1Senator Kyrsten Sinema The waters of the Colorado River and its tributaries also continue to support a number of Indigenous Tribes in the area, including the Havasupai, Hopi and Navajo Nations, while the land and river remain sacred to many more Tribes, as well as naturalists, rafters, artists and authors.

Aerial of North Rim of Colorado River, Arizona

Despite the land’s cultural and ecological significance, the area surrounding the Grand Canyon has historically hosted a large number of mining operations. The region is rich in uranium ore, a key fuel for nuclear reactors and component of nuclear weaponry once milled and refined. Indigenous communities have consistently been at the forefront of campaigns against these operations, since it is their people, land, and water that face the greatest risk of harm from the extraction of uranium. The most recent action to protect these lands comes in the form of the Grand Canyon Protection Act, a bill created to ban the construction of new uranium mines in the area surrounding the national park.

History of Uranium Mining Pollution

The Grand Canyon area saw its first boom in uranium mining during the Cold War’s nuclear arms race. At one point, there were as many as 800 active mines in the region.2Grand Canyon Trust As the Cold War came to an end and uranium became less profitable, many of these mines were abandoned and left to degrade, unmonitored by environmental agencies and posing the risk of contamination of nearby water sources.3Center for Biological Diversity But in the 2000’s, uranium mining became a lucrative business once again, due to a renewed interest in nuclear power.  This prompted the number of claims requesting mining rights around the Grand Canyon to soar into the thousands.4Grand Canyon Trust The concern of local Tribes’ over this potential surge in mining operations led the Obama Administration to temporarily suspend the creation of new mines in 2012.5Sharif, Humna

Active Grand Canyon Mining Claims, courtesy of Stephanie Smith at Grand Canyon Trust

Reversing that however in 2020, the Trump Administration announced a $1.5 billion plan to “to revive and strengthen the uranium mining industry.” This move would mostly benefit large mining corporations and leave the Grand Canyon and its Indigenous communities continuing to suffer the long-lasting and potentially devastating effects of large-scale uranium mining.6Sharif, Humna

The Impacts of Uranium Mining on Freshwater Resources

To reach uranium ore underground, deep shafts are bored into the earth, which can expose the groundwater feeding many of the rivers and streams in the area to uranium.7Walters, Joanna When thus contaminated, these underground aquifers can poison entire ecosystems and their inhabitants. The Havasupai Tribe lives within the Grand Canyon and relies solely upon Havasu Creek, a spring-fed stream for their water. Their main concern about nearby uranium mining lies in the fact that very little is known about how water flows underneath the ground in the Grand Canyon, making any mining operations in the area an immediate threat to their most vital resource.8Grand Canyon Trust

Aerial of Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

If the Colorado River became inundated with radioactive material it would create a grave public health issue, especially since about 40 million people rely solely on water from the Lower Colorado River Basin.9Grand Canyon Trust There already have been a number of reports of nearby water sources, such as the Grand Canyon’s Horn Creek, containing uranium concentrations well above the limit set by the Environmental Protection Agency, due to its close proximity to an abandoned mine.10Sharif, Humna One study by the Center for Disease Control found that members of the Navajo Nation suffer more cases of cancer and kidney failure than any other group as a result of their heightened exposure to uranium. This exposure leaves a lasting effects on generation after generation of Navajo.11Walters, Joanna

Radiation Area sign, Grand Canyon South Rim, courtesy of Al_HikesAZ on Creative Commons

Contaminated bodies of water in the Grand Canyon are also frequented by over 100 different animal species, including critically-endangered species like the California condor.12Center for Biological Diversity

In such an arid region, the loss of clean freshwater safe for both humans and wildlife would be especially devastating. Preventing the expansion of uranium mining in the region is a top priority – especially with so many Indigenous Tribes maintaining cultural and ancestral ties to this land and its ecosystems.

The Grand Canyon Protection Act

This past February, the Grand Canyon Protection Act was introduced and passed in the House of Representatives. The next step is to garner enough support in the Senate. If passed there, the bill would impose a 20-year ban on the construction of new mines in one million acres surrounding this national park.13Heinsius, Ryan Although the bill does not stop the operation of currently active mines on 600 land claims, the Havasupai and a number of Arizona’s representatives consider this bill a step in the right direction.

Proposed Area for Grand Canyon Protection, courtesy of Stephanie Smith at Grand Canyon Trust

As the United States seeks to decrease its dependence on fossil fuels and shift to alternative energy sources, it will need to do so without nuclear power compromising the health of its most crucial natural resources and the people who depend on them. Although it may be a while before the Grand Canyon Protection Act is brought before the Senate, the best way to ensure its success is to reach out and ask our local leaders to support this bill. Such action can be critical in protecting one of most treasured parts of the country.


Sources:

“Grand Canyon Uranium Mining.” Center for Biological Diversity, n.d. Accessed on May 27 by JM. https://www.biologicaldiversity.org/programs/public_lands/mining/Grand_Canyon_Uranium_Mining/index.html

Heinsius, Ryan. “U.S. Senate Bill Would Permanently Ban New Uranium Mining Near Grand Canyon.” KNAU National Public Radio, Feb 25, 2021. Accessed on May 27, 2021 by JM.  https://www.knau.org/post/us-senate-bill-would-permanently-ban-new-uranium-mining-near-grand-canyon

“Uranium Mining.” Grand Canyon Trust, n.d. Accessed on May 27, 2021 by JM. https://www.grandcanyontrust.org/grand-canyon-uranium

“Sinema, Kelly Introduce Bill Protecting the Grand Canyon, Strengthening Arizona’s Economy.” Senator Kyrsten Sinema, Feb 23, 2021. Accessed on May 27, 2021 by JM. https://www.sinema.senate.gov/sinema-kelly-introduce-bill-protecting-grand-canyon-strengthening-arizonas-economy

Sharif, Humna. “Water in the Southwest and the New-Old Threat of Uranium Mining.” Yale School of the Environment, June 29, 2020. Accessed on May 27 by JM.  http://highplainsstewardship.org/water-in-the-southwest-and-the-new-old-threat-of-uranium-mining-humna-sharif/

“Uranium.” Grand Canyon Trust, n.d. Accessed on May 27, 2021 by JM. https://www.grandcanyontrust.org/colorado-plateau-uranium

Walters, Joanna. “In The Grand Canyon, Uranium Mining Threatens a Tribe’s Survival.” The Guardian, July 17, 2017. Accessed on May 27 by JM. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/jul/17/grand-canyon-uranium-mining-havasupai-tribe-water-source

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