Uranium truck

A truck hauling uranium ore drives along a dirt road on the Arizona Strip. Scientists say the public health risks posed by such trucks are low. Trucks would be used to haul uranium ore from through Canyon Uranium Mine south of Tusayan through Flagstaff on Interstate 40 and U.S. Highway 89 to a processing mill in Utah. 

Feeling helpless in the face of a threat or looming problem can be frustrating.

So we understand why the Flagstaff City Council, along with the councils of most Arizona charter cities, want as much local control as allowed by the law.

But banning uranium ore trucks is a solution in search of a problem and actually frustrates the drive for more home rule – more on that below.

Last Saturday we published a guest column from members of four city councils in Arizona – including Eva Putzova of Flagstaff – making a plea for more local control. They contend that what the Legislature says is a matter of statewide interest for reasons of efficiency and consistency is really the work of special interests who find it easier to lobby a limited number of state legislators than fight their battles in cities across the state. The assumption is that if special interests had to argue the case at the local level against higher minimum wages, more sick days, banning guns in libraries and regulating plastic bags, to name a few issues that lawmakers consider to be “statewide,” they would lose most every time.

But not all local problems are created equal. Cellphone use while driving is certainly dangerous, but it makes more sense to have a single policy for drivers statewide, considering how many city and county boundaries a driver might cross in a day.

Another transportation issue concerns hazardous materials, and here the federal government has usurped even state -- much less local -- control, given the importance of protecting public health and safety. Dangerous chemicals and other materials must be marked and placed in safe containers, then follow suitable roads or rail lines. Some cities and states might want more strict controls, which they can pursue on a case-by-case basis, but oversight remains in the hands of the feds.

In Flagstaff, a city with up to 100 freight trains passing through its heart each day, we would expect the city council to demand the strictest standards for what are known as “toxic inhalation hazard” (TIH) chemicals like chlorine gas and anhydrous ammonia. A derailment downtown of railcars carrying those chemicals would be life-threatening, despite local emergency response plans. Recent TIH rail accidents in Canada have prompted some public health officials to demand the building of safer chemical rail cars and ramping up response plans in population centers.

Ironically, the Flagstaff City Council last week chose to focus on a hazardous material – uranium oxide ore – that represents almost no risk to public health and safety, according to scientists. The radioactive elements in a truckload of unprocessed ore are simply too low – about 1 percent -- to pose a health or environmental danger, even were the contents to spill or dust to blow out from beneath the tarp. Under modern rules for unprocessed uranium ore hauling in the U.S. and countries around the globe, there is no record of contamination at even a minor level, much less a significant one.

The legacy of Cold War-era uranium mining on the Rez and elsewhere in the region is tragic and criminal, and the EPA is way behind schedule on cleanups. Further, the 1872 Mining Law that allows virtually unregulated uranium mining on western public lands is an embarrassment to modern-day environmental stewardship and ought to be repealed and replaced.

   But the Flagstaff City Council won’t move the needle on either of those critical issues or make its own citizens any safer by attempting to ban uranium haul trucks through the city. Instead, such a move is a misinformed overreach that undermines the council’s credibility and thus its rightful push for local control of issues that actually threaten the health, safety and the quality of life of its citizens. It’s time they got back to more important business.

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