Now that he has recommended shrinking some national monuments, he’ll turn his attention to reopening parts of the Grand Canyon watershed to uranium mining.

That’s the thinking among industry and environmental groups now that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has finished his “listening” tour of monuments and made his recommendations to President Trump. It’s a different era of deregulation and expanded private uses of public lands than under President Obama, even if the White House is still governing mainly by executive order.

The challenge for those who favor an extended time-out for new uranium mining pending more research is how to respond if the moratorium is lifted. Lawsuits can no doubt be filed to force the filing a new EIS to justify mining resumption. But our sense is that opponents ought to pick their spots and negotiate for highly restricted and monitored mine sites in exchange for areas of permanent withdrawal. After five years of research since the 2012 moratorium, scientists likely have at least a preliminary reading on the riskiest as well as the least risky locations. Better to lock those in subject to ongoing and better-funded research than risk a blanket resumption of mining over 1 million acres by walking away from the bargaining table.


But why participate in mining at all, given the toxic legacy of Cold War-era uranium mining on the Rez and elsewhere? For starters, there’s already a grandfathered uranium mine south of Tusayan set to reopen by next year, regardless of the moratorium. Use it as a guinea pig for not only enhanced, 24-7 monitoring but mandatory shutdowns and immediate remediation when water gets in. And in the Legislature, Democrats should introduce bills with much tougher bonding and penalties for existing and new mines based on past violations, then force Republicans to vote against safer uranium mining and run on that record.

Another reason to engage is that, as we report today, the open pit and tunnel mining techniques of a half-century ago are long gone. Modern mines sink a shaft down alongside a vertical “pipe” of uranium ore – there’s no injection of water and no direct exposure to air. The ore is hauled up and trucked away to a mill in Utah, not crushed or processed on site that releases toxic dust. It’s not fracking and it’s not leveling mountaintops, nor is there any plausible scenario by which the Colorado River itself would be contaminated – its water volume would dilute any radioactivity below background levels.


Instead, the risks have mainly to do with the pipes of underground ore being loosened by mining, then coming into contact with perched or even deep aquifers. The radioactive particles become soluble and travel potentially into seeps and springs. But at what levels of contamination and for how long it would persist are still subject to more research.

Scientists say they could answer those questions sooner if they had more funding to sink more test shafts and do tracer studies of underground water connections. State regulators don’t have the money to even do regular on-site inspections, much less tests – the Canyon Mine near Tusayan does self-reporting, even of violations. So here’s a thought: If the industry is so confident their mines are low-risk, let them post bonds and pay fees for monitoring and testing sufficient to prove it. Failing that, challenge Gov. Ducey, an opponent of the mining moratorium, to put enough money in the Department of Environment Quality budget to do all of the above. At the most, there are likely to be just a handful of new mines that open on his watch, not enough to break the state piggy bank.

Given the uncertainty of current research on contamination scenarios from modern mining, we’d urge the Trump White House to take a pass on disturbing the moratorium. But his track record says he’ll be doing the opposite, which is why Grand Canyon advocates need to get up to speed on modern breccia pipe mining and come up with counter-proposals that contain the risks in exchange for protecting the most vulnerable seeps and springs. Stonewalling may be emotionally satisfying, but with thousands of claims already staked in the watershed and a mining advocate in the White House, it’s not very practical if minimizing risk is what the moratorium was about in the first place.