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."
He was one of just three of 14 witnesses favoring a continuation of mining activity at last Friday's Congressional field hearing - Community Impacts of Proposed Uranium Mining Near Grand Canyon National Park - in Flagstaff.
Also testifying 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.
The panel was headed by Arizona's 4th District congressman, Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva and included fellow representatives Ed Pastor of Arizona's 4th Congressional District and Grace Napolitano of California's 38th District. It was convened in conjunction with legislation that Grijalva is sponsoring to curb mining in proximity to 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 Grand Canyon where it is still permitted: 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."
The legislation was introduced in response to a permit granted to Vane Minerals 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 a mitigation plan reviewed by agency experts.
"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. Mining is prohibited on all reservation land by order of the tribes, as well as on land designated as a national park and national monument.
Taylor said that it had the potential to damage the county's tourism industry, an assertion that geologist Dr. Karen Wenrich disputed in her testimony later.
"Quite the contrary," she said. "The Orphan Mine in Grand Canyon National Park is a tourist attraction."
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 protected, 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.
Pressed by Napolitano, he rated his concern at the top of a 1-10 scale.
Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr. recalled the industry's legacy on Native American land over 40 years, from the 1940s to the 1980s when companies declared bankruptcy and walked away.
"Why should we believe the companies now, when they haven't cleaned up the mess they left behind the last time?" said President Shirley. He said there are some 1,000 abandoned miles located on Navajo land, and that contamination from mill tailings threatens drinking water in Tuba City and Shiprock, N.M. Hopi villages of Upper and Lower Moenkopi report elevated uranium levels in their own drinking water - a legacy left by Rare Metals Corporation's processing facility.
All five tribal leaders said that the mining was an affront to the land - not just the reservation land, but also all aboriginal land - and their sacred traditions.
"As Native Americans, we believe that all things are connected and have a spirit that should be treated with respect," said Ona Segundo, chairwoman of the Kaibab Paiute tribe of northern Arizona and southern Utah. "There are reasons why resources are buried."
Hualapai Chairman Charles Vaughn said that his tribe has been offered money and shares in a publicly traded mining company, in exchange for allowing mining on their land.
"You need to understand how indigenous people value money," he said. "It's not in the context that you value money."
He said that along with health and spiritual considerations, the tribe also had a moral stand regarding how the material could be used.
"The indigenous people do not want to be responsible for having this product turned into weapons-grade uranium and bring devastation," he said. "That outweighs the monetary value."
Under questioning by Napolitano, tribal leaders also said that because they didn't come before any governing board, contact from the Forest Service didn't rise to the formality of government-to-government consultations as required in a 1998 executive order.
Regional Forester Corbin Newman stressed that to mine, companies would have a more stringent process to follow.
"We did not receive a proposal for mining," he said. "This was simply for exploration. Mining development is a whole different proposal which requires a much more detailed analysis and disclosure."
But opponents said there was little difference.
"Why explore if mining is not going to be practical?" said Taylor.