Trump administration recommends uranium mining in the Grand Canyon

The move would raise no additional revenue but would put drinking water for millions at risk.

Federal officials are proposing to lift the Obama administration's ban on issuing new mining leases for mining uranium from public land outside Grand Canyon National Park in northern Arizona. CREDIT: AP Photo/Rick Hossman
Federal officials are proposing to lift the Obama administration's ban on issuing new mining leases for mining uranium from public land outside Grand Canyon National Park in northern Arizona. CREDIT: AP Photo/Rick Hossman

A report published Wednesday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture included a recommendation to lift a 20-year ban on mining for uranium in the Grand Canyon watershed.

The report was one of several requested by Trump’s “energy independence” executive order, which directed all agencies to identify regulations that potentially “burden” fossil fuel development. Among other recommendations in the USDA report, including creating more exclusions to the National Environmental Policy Act, was the recommendation to revise the current ban on new mining claims in the national forest lands that surround Grand Canyon National Park.

The current 1-million-acre ban on new uranium mining was put into place by the Obama administration in 2012 for after an environmental impact statement found that expanded mining could cause severe impacts on water quality for downstream users. The Grand Canyon watershed provides drinking water for at least 25 million people.

“Like our ancestors, we do not know how future Americans will enjoy, experience, and benefit from this place,” former Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar said when the ban was announced. “And that’s one of the many reasons why wisdom, caution, and science should guide our protection of the Grand Canyon.”

The new Trump administration proposal was immediately slammed as another gift to extractive industries — one that puts drinking water, wildlife habitat, and the $887 billion outdoor recreation industry at risk.

“The holidays have come early and often for the oil, gas and mining industry since Donald Trump took office,” said Vera Smith, the forest planning policy director at The Wilderness Society. “People flock to public lands like national forests to watch wildlife, raft clean rivers, hunt and fish, or camp beneath the stars. Today’s report ignores the $887 billion that outdoor activities contribute to this nation’s economy so the Trump Administration can check off the wish list of its fossil fuel allies.”

Uranium mining in the four corners region has also left a toxic legacy on many Native American communities. Navajo miners developed high rates of lung cancer from unsafe mining practices, and there is still radioactive waste lingering throughout their tribal lands.

“Accidents happen. Tornadoes, floods, hurricanes, road crashes, mistakes happen, that’s just life,” said Coleen Kaska, a Havasupai tribal council member fighting an existing mine in the area. “Once a disaster occurs, there’s no fixing it, and there’s no going back.”

The economic implications of lifting the ban don’t work in the favor of the Trump administration either. Existing uranium mines in the area are currently idled, not because of regulations, but because of rock-bottom global uranium prices.

Even if the market rebounds, a mining expansion would have nearly no economic benefit for taxpayers. Under the General Mining Act of 1872, the federal government can’t collect royalties on minerals like uranium, so there would be no significant revenue raised from the move. Industry would be the sole beneficiaries, while publicly owned forests surrounding a national park are damaged and polluted.

The recommendation to lift the ban may be part of a larger trend of the Trump Administration removing protections on public lands for the sake extractive industry. For example, Secretary Zinke has announced plans to open 10 million acres of federal lands that were set aside for protection of the greater sage grouse, to oil and gas development. They have also floated the idea of lifting the 1-million-acre mining withdrawal within a formally designated renewable energy development zone in the California desert.

The USDA recommendation for the Grand Canyon will not necessarily result in immediate action, but it does place the issue as a clear part of the Administration’s deregulatory agenda.

Jenny Rowland is the research and advocacy manager for the public lands team at the Center for American Progress. ThinkProgress is an editorially independent news site housed in the Center for American Progress Action Fund.