Originally Published: March 31, 2008 9:41 p.m.
Despite assertions that uranium extraction is safer now than 50 years ago, some northern Arizona tribes and officials aren't willing to trust an industry they say hasn't taken responsibility for what it left behind during the last mining boom.
"It served as an excellent example of how not to do things," said Kris Hefton, Chief Operating Officer of Vane Minerals, of past practices. "The industry of the past 25 years has learned from that."
Despite his positive testimony, he was one of just three out of 14 witnesses favoring a continuation of mining activity at this past Friday's congressional field hearing - Community Impacts of Proposed Uranium Mining Near Grand Canyon National Park - in Flagstaff.
Also testifying during the four-and-a-half hour hearing were representatives from the Navajo, Kaibab Paiute, Havasupai, Hualapai and Hopi tribes; representatives from Coconino County and Kane County, Utah; Park Service; Forest Service; river running industry and scientific community.
Arizona's 4th District Congressman Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva headed the panel which included fellow representatives Ed Pastor of Arizona's 4th Congressional District and Grace Napolitano of California's 38th District. The hearing ran in conjunction with legislation that Grijalva is sponsoring to curb mining near Grand Canyon National Park. It was a joint effort by the Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands of the House Natural Resources Committee and the Energy and Minerals Subcommittee.
HR 5583 would prohibit new uranium mining in the last three portions of federal land surrounding the Grand Canyon where it is still permissible: the Tusayan Ranger District of the Kaibab National Forest south of the Canyon, the Kanab Creek watershed north of the park, and House Rock Valley, between Grand Canyon National Park and Vermilion Cliffs National Monument - about 1 million acres in all.
"Grand Canyon is in a status unto itself," Grijalva said. "The reason is to bring emphasis to that status, not to shut the industry down."
Grijalva introduced the legislation in response to a permit Vane Minerals obtained to explore for uranium on the Tusayan Ranger District. Grijalva called it a placeholder that would stop new mining while congress works to revise the 1872 mining law that gives the Forest Service little latitude to deny mining and exploration requests as long as the company does an environmental review and has agency experts review a mitigation plan. The revision would also require the hard rock mining industry to pay royalties on profits, as the oil industry already does.
"A no-action alternative was not an option," said County Supervisor Carl Taylor. "Coconino County supports providing federal land managers with the authority to assess cultural and economic impacts when making decisions under mining and reclamation laws."
The board in February voted to oppose all mining activity around Grand Canyon. Coconino County's comprehensive plan of 2003 also discourages industrial uses, including mining, on or near public lands. However, the board has no jurisdiction over administration of state and federal land - 87 percent of the county's inventory - even though they rely heavily on it to support the tourism industry. Tribal orders prohibit mining on all reservation land, as well as on land designated as a national park and national monument.
While Coconino County vehemently opposes mining, County Commissioner Dan Hulet of Kane County, Utah, said that his board welcomes a return of the industry to an area that he said never rebounded from the end of the last boom.
"Life was good, jobs were plentiful and paid a good wage," he said. "When they shut down hundreds were out of work."
Grand Canyon National Park Superintendent Steve Martin said that while all of the land under his purview is under protection, he is concerned about mining activity close to the park border.
On the Tusayan Ranger District alone, there are 2,100 uranium claims, five uranium exploration projects slated and the possible opening of one uranium mine.
"There is some concern for the protection of the resources," he said, noting that the Native American cultures and values are part of that.
All five tribal leaders said that the mining was an affront to the land - not just the reservation land, but all aboriginal land - and their sacred traditions.
Editor's note: Jackie Brown is an associate editor of the Grand Canyon News, a sister publication of the Courier. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.