FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. - Northern Arizona tribes and environmentalists praised a recent decision by the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee to ban uranium mining outside of the Grand Canyon during the next three years.
Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr. and Grand Canyon Trust spokesman Roger Clark were among those who hailed the move.
A U.S. House
committee invoked an obscure emergency act to block future uranium mining on more than one million acres on public land to the north and the south of the Grand Canyon.
U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) sponsored the use of the 1976 Federal Land and Management Act.
The environmental resolution, adopted June 25, orders the Bush administration to ban new mining claims on federal land adjacent to the Grand Canyon.
Some Bush administration members questioned whether the move was constitutional, but didn't say if they would fight it.
President Shirley recently testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources against uranium mining. The Navajo Nation has a ban against uranium mining because of past mines that were left in unhealthy shape and has hurt the health of many Navajos.
"The Navajo people do not want renewed uranium mining on or near the Navajo Nation. I ask you to respect the Navajo Nation's tragic experience with uranium mining, and to allow the Navajo people and Navajo Indian country to remain free of renewed contamination," he testified.
Shirley also testified that uranium contamination does not stay in one place but travels as it has for decades spreading contamination as it moves. He also called on the federal government to cleanup the contamination sites that have been left behind.
"Decades after mining has ceased on the Navajo Nation my people continue to get sick and die from the contamination," he said.
President Shirley testified that Navajo workers, their families and neighbors have suffered increased rates of cancer and sickness caused by uranium exposure. He added that families who live in the contaminated areas today continue to experience health problems.
Shirley said uranium mining companies continue to approach the Navajo Nation for new mines and tell them that technology for mining has been improved. Some want to use the in situ leaching method, but Shirley said at best this technology has not been proven to work and at worst could bring more radiation contamination.
Shirley said the Navajo Nation has been consistently lied to by uranium companies and the federal government concerning the impact of mining activities.
"Unfortunately, the true cost of these activities is understood only later when the companies have stolen away with their profits, leaving the Navajo people to bear the health burden," he said. "I will not allow my Navajo people to be the guinea pigs of those seeking only profits."
Shirley further testified that he considers it unconscionable that the federal government would consider allowing uranium mining anywhere near the Navajo Nation.
The Grand Canyon Trust, Sierra Club and Center for Biological Diversity have led the way to banning uranium in and around the Grand Canyon. The Navajo, Hopi, Hualapai and Havasupai tribes have also protested against uranium mining in and around the Grand Canyon.
Opponents of uranium mining in or near the Grand Canyon question how it would impact the Grand Canyon watershed, the wildlife and how tourists coming to the canyon would respond to passing a uranium mine along the way.
Roger Clark, air and energy director for the Grand Canyon Trust, said the three year moratorium on banning uranium mining outside of the Grand Canyon gives opponents of the measure a timeline to attempt to put a permanent ban in place.
Clark, based in Flagstaff, said the Grand Canyon Watersheds Act proposes to do exactly that. He said they hoped that U.S. Sen. John McCain, the Republican candidate for president, would sponsor the measure in the Senate, but that "he's unapproachable and it's hard to get him to return telephone calls."
Clark praised Rep. Grijalva for bringing the uranium mining issue to the forefront.
Clark noted that the last time this ban was used was during the Reagan administration.
"The issue is whether it's constitutional, but the Bush administration has no problems with constitutional issues regarding the war in Iraq," Clark said.
Clark said the Grand Canyon Trust opposes uranium mining in or near the Grand Canyon because it would impact the groundwater and establish an industrial mining district that would be incompatible with tourism.
In 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt made it so part of the Grand Canyon could not be mined.
"It was good enough then it should be good enough today," he said.
Clark emphasized that this also shows the need to update the 1872 Mining Act which allows mining companies unlimited access to public lands.
"This is just another example of why the 1872 Mining Act is antiquated and needs to be rewritten" he said.
Joshua Lavar Butler, spokesman for the Navajo Nation Tribal Council, said the tribal council fully supports the ban on uranium mining on the Navajo Nation.
"There have been a lot of health problems there due to uranium mining," he said.