You Won’t Have to Look Past Mining Operations to Enjoy the Grand Canyon Any Time Soon.
Earlier this year, hikers and nature enthusiasts rejoiced at the Obama administration’s decision to protect one million acres of public land around Grand Canyon National Park from new uranium mining.
Uranium mining involves extracting uranium from the ground, either by physically removing the rock ore through open-pit or underground mining or by chemically dissolving the uranium right out of the rock. Though many nuclear power proponents tout the industry’s ability to create clean energy, the process of mining and milling of uranium—nuclear power’s main fuel source—creates massive stockpiles of radioactive and toxic waste that contaminate surface and groundwater. The process also creates sand-like tailings, a waste byproduct that poses a hazard to public health and safety. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the approximately 4,000 open pit and underground mines in the U.S. generate about three billion metric tons of uranium mining waste. Of course, this figure should be taken with a grain of salt since even the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency doesn’t keep track of uranium mining waste.
As far as mining in the Grand Canyon, the great uranium mining boom began in the 1950s, but three decades later the boom busted and miners bailed, leaving behind thousands of “poisonous surface sites and deadly groundwater plumes.” Obama’s recent decision to establish a 20-year ban on new uranium mining and mining of current claims without valid permits will ensure that the Grand Canyon’s pristine ecosystem is protected from any new uranium mining pollution. It will also protect imperiled species like the humpback chub, a large freshwater fish found only in the Colorado River Basin that gets its name from a hump on its back, which helps the fish steady itself in swift waters.
Most significantly, for the millions of people who visit the Grand Canyon annually and for the Indian tribes who call it home, the ban will keep dozens of new mines from industrializing iconic and regionally sacred wildlands, destroying wildlife habitat and permanently polluting or depleting aquifers. It will also protect tourism-related jobs and drinking water for millions downstream. Not mining in the Grand Canyon is a win on many levels, which is probably why scientists, tribal and local governments and businesses have all voiced their support for the ban.
Millions of years ago, the Grand Canyon was carved by the constant flow of the famous Colorado River. Three years ago, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar issued a temporary ban on new mining claims around the world-famous national park. Obama’s recent decision to protect the park from uranium mining for another 20 years will help ensure that the beauty of the park stays intact for many years to come.