This trick could allow dangerous uranium mining at the Grand Canyon

Opinion: Uranium would enjoy looser environmental and permitting standards because of its importance to 'national security and economic prosperity,' U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva says.

On May 18, the Department of the Interior released a list of 35 minerals set to enjoy looser environmental and permitting standards because of their importance to “national security and economic prosperity.” The list includes uranium even though DOI’s screening tool suggested it didn’t meet the criteria.

The Grand Canyon area is home to some of our nation’s richest uranium deposits, and the listing made public interest groups nervous. On June 18, an alliance of sportsmen and conservationists opened a public campaign to press Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke not to reopen uranium mining in the region, prompting Zinke to say he has no interest in such a move.

This claim cannot be taken at face value. Secretary Zinke has been less than truthful about his stewardship of our public lands and has lost the benefit of the doubt.

Good reason to be skeptical of Zinke

To understand Zinke critics’ skepticism, look to southern Utah, where Zinke and President Trump last year announced the drastic shrinking of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and Bears Ears National Monument. In making the announcement, both men said mineral extraction interests played no role in their decision.

This was untrue.

A uranium company called Energy Fuels Resources lobbied heavily for the rescissions – southern Utah holds uranium deposits, some of which the Bureau of Land Management recently approved for mining – and quickly got its wish. The company’s lobbyist, Andrew Wheeler, is now Administrator Scott Pruitt’s deputy at the Environmental Protection Agency.

Grand Canyon defenders should be forgiven their urgency. Under an executive order President Trump signed late last year, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross is due to send President Trump a report this fall with “recommendations to streamline permitting and review processes related to developing leases,” among other issues.

That report will almost certainly recommend hastier permitting times with little environmental oversight, not just for uranium but for the entire “critical minerals” list. Zinke’s promises will mean little in the face of an administration-wide push for mining deregulation.

Irony: Uranium isn't a 'critical mineral'

Uranium’s inclusion on the “critical minerals” list is especially ironic because the nation’s largest nuclear power provider, Exelon Corp., argued during the listing process that uranium is not critical to national security. Uranium, Exelon pointed out, is neither a “non-fuel mineral” nor liable to supply chain disruption, two criteria necessary for listing.

The Grand Canyon region is protected by a moratorium on new mining claims set to expire in 2032. Grand Canyon defenders want Congress to drop deregulation talk and for Secretary Zinke to extend this moratorium.

With this option in mind, I wrote Secretary Zinke a letter on May 21 asking him why uranium requires national security consideration and weaker environmental oversight. He has not replied.

Domestic uranium production already exceeds our demand, and Department of Energy policy calls for selling excess uranium abroad even though the global market is glutted thanks to plant closures in Japan and Germany. Our two biggest suppliers of raw uranium for fuel use are Canada and Australia, neither of which has any reason to restrict our supply.

This is not the face of a commodity President Trump, Secretary Zinke or the American people need to prop up artificially. Boosters don’t want to hear this, but uranium is not our future. Congress and the Trump administration shouldn’t sacrifice our public lands for the sake of the uranium industry, and Secretary Zinke should extend the Grand Canyon mining moratorium.

Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva, a Democrat, represents southwestern Arizona and portions of Tucson in Congressional District 3. Reach him at grijalva.house.gov/connect-with-raul/;on Twitter, @RepRaulGrijalva.

By:  Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva
Source: AZ Central