FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. - A two-year ban on uranium mining near the Grand Canyon only impacts new claims and will not stop three pending uranium mines that already have claims.
Havasupais, Navajos and members of several other tribes have come out in opposition to the proposed uranium mines near the south and north rims of the Grand Canyon.
Uranium mining is banned on the Navajo Nation and prohibited in Grand Canyon National Park, but allowed in millions of acres of Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management land surrounding what many consider a national treasure.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar recently issued a two-year moratorium against uranium mining near the Grand Canyon.
While environmentalists cheer his action, it will not impact three mines that Denison Mining Corp. is seeking to open. The Arizona One Mine near the north rim of the Grand Canyon could receive the last permit it needs by mid-August and could be operational within six months.
The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality held hearings last week in Fredonia with the speakers split on whether the mines should be granted air and water permits needed for their operation.
The Havasupai followed this hearing during the last weekend with an anti-uranium mine gathering at Red Butte, near the south rim of the Grand Canyon. Red Butte is a sacred site to the Havasupai Tribe and within five miles of one of the proposed uranium mines.
Mark Shaffer, spokesman for Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, said the Arizona One Mine only needs the air quality permit and could be approved by mid-August. He said the Canyon Mine and Pine Nut Mine are further off and may need more public hearings. He said there is no timeline for those mines yet.
Havasupai and environmentalists criticized the location of the only public hearing for the mine because it was in a remote location and an eight-hour drive for the Havasupai who have a large stake in it because of the Red Butte issue.
Shaffer said Fredonia was selected because it is the community most impacted by the mine and a Mohave County supervisor asked for it to be held there.
Shaffer said the only issue holding up the Arizona One Mine permit is whether there will be problems with dust since the uranium ore trucks will go down 37 miles of dirt roads.
"Our technical people say radon is not a factor on the ore trucks," he said.
Environmentalists say the ADEQ permit process is too lenient in favor of the mine and has become more lenient during Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer's administration. Shaffer responded that there have been no changes and the governor has not weighed in on the hearings or the issue.
Ron Hochstein, president and chief executive officer for Denison Mines, said he respects Native Americans and the mine is not on the Red Butte site and it is "a very tiny area" of less than 20 acres.
"It is quite a ways above the aquifer," he said, adding that ADEQ has done a thorough job of making sure the public safety is not impacted negatively by the mines. He said Denison Mines at other sites haven't caused any groundwater or aquifer contamination and past Denison Mine sites have been fully reclaimed.
Hochstein said once the permit is approved that it will take about six months of development work before the mine is ready for operation. He said Denison Mines already has contracts with several utilities to provide them with uranium for nuclear energy. He said all of the plants are in the U.S. except one in South Korea.
"We wouldn't sell to North Korea," he said.
Hochstein said the coal-fired power plants in the area cause more pollution in the Grand Canyon than uranium mines.
Another issue is that federal approval for these mines was given back in the 1980s and Denison Mines have let the mines sit dormant since that time. Environmentalists point out a lot has changed since that time such as the introduction of the California condor to the area and stricter environmental laws have been adopted by the federal government.
Taylor McKinnon, a spokesman for the Center for Biological Diversity, is in the process of writing letters to the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management calling for them to reevaluate the proposed uranium mines. He said the BLM is required to reevaluate mining proposals and use the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) whenever there is new information. He notes that there is plenty of new information since these mines were granted approval more than 20 years ago.
If neither the BLM or the forest service respond in an environmentally friendly way then McKinnon will ask members of Congress to intervene.
Carletta Tilousi, organizer of the Red Butte gathering, doesn't want to wait. She said with the pending approval of the Arizona One Mine that she is calling for meetings with members of Congress especially U.S. Sen. John McCain.
"The Red Butte area is our aboriginal territory. We still have rights on Kaibab National Forest. According to the law, we can occupy it for gatherings," she said.
Tilousi, who is Havasupai, is also calling for a meeting with Gov. Brewer.
"We would like to keep the Grand Canyon natural," she said. "The governor needs to listen to the citizens and the Havasupai who have inhabited the Grand Canyon for centuries."
Tilousi said when more than 400 people gathered at Red Butte to protest the uranium mining that it was the largest anti-uranium mining protest at the Grand Canyon.
"It shows the resistance is growing," she said.
ADEQ is continuing to accept comments. Those comments can be submitted to ADEQ at firstname.lastname@example.org or mail the comments to ADEQ, Trevor Baggier, 1110 West Washington, Suite 3415A-1, Phoenix, Az., 85007.