MANAGEMENT

US designates lands around Grand Canyon off limits to mining

US President Joe Biden has allocated nearly 1 million acres near the Grand Canyon for the Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni – Ancestral Footprints National Monument.

 The new monument spans three distinct areas to the south, northeast, and northwest of the Grand Canyon.

The new monument spans three distinct areas to the south, northeast, and northwest of the Grand Canyon.

The new National Monument in Arizona seeks to recognise the area's cultural significance for more than a dozen Tribal Nations and Indigenous peoples. The proclamation builds on an Obama Administration two-decade moratorium on uranium mining around the Grand Canyon.

The Biden-Harris administration cited the desire to protect "sacred ancestral places and their historically and scientifically important features while conserving our public lands, protecting wildlife habitat and clean water, and supporting local economies" as justification for the national monument status.

The government acknowledged that the protections would prevent new mining claims; however, it does not supersede mining claims that pre-date the 2012 moratorium.

Additionally, "the two approved mining operations within the boundaries of the monument would be able to operate."

Republican opposition

The announcement from the White House was met with instant opposition from the Republican party, citing the need for a domestic uranium stockpile to fuel the nation's nuclear reactors, which produce 20% of the country's electricity.

On Tuesday (August 8), republicans in the House of Representatives announced plans to probe the Biden designation.

"The BNGC National Monument and the corresponding mineral withdrawal comes at an inflection point for our country in an age of geopolitical uncertainty-the federal government must decide whether to increase domestic mining and secure our mineral supply chain or serve at the mercy of foreign adversaries for decades to come," a letter to the President from Bruce Westerman Chairman of Committee on Natural Resources and Paul A. Gosar, Chairman of the Subcommittee on Oversight & Investigations and Committee on Natural Resources.

Despite relying on nuclear energy to power grids across the country, the US only produced 5% of its annual uranium needs in 2021, having to import most of the 46.74 million pounds it used.

While almost 30% of those imports came from ally nations Canada and Australia, the Natural Resources Committee letter highlighted that 50% originates in Kazakhstan and Russia.

"Despite the war in Ukraine and ongoing sanctions against Russia, the US continues to send US$1 billion a year to Russia's state-owned nuclear agency for enriched uranium," the letter read. "America's reliance on foreign uranium imports leaves current and future nuclear plants in the US vulnerable to disruption, especially from Russia, "which often yields energy as a geopolitical tool."

Proponents want more protections

One of the projects with the green light is the Pinyon Plain uranium mine owned by Canada-listed Energy Fuels.

In 2022, The  Arizona Department of Environmental Quality issued an aquifer protection plan permit for the Pinyon Plain mine, moving it one step closer to production.

The issuance was met with ire from the Centre of Biological Diversity which pointed to the project's history of flooding as a catalyst to deplete shallow groundwater aquifers.

"It also threatens to permanently contaminate deep aquifers that feed Havasu Creek and other springs," the statement read, "The approval comes despite calls by the Havasupai Tribe and conservation groups to close the Pinyon Plain mine given its risks to water and Tribal cultural resources."

Conservation

Earlier this year the Reno Sparks Indian Colony (RSIC), consisting of Northern and Southern Paiute, Shoshone, and Washoe tribal members, lost their bid to have the US District Court for the District of Nevada overturn a permit for the Lithium Nevada's Thacker Pass project in northern Nevada.

The RSIC, like its state neighbours in Arizona, described the area as "a culturally, spiritually, and historically important place." 

While the President's latest decree won't stop the Thacker Pass in Nevada or the Pinyon Plains project, it prevents new mining projects from being established in the Arizona expanse. The protected area spans three distinct areas to the south, northeast, and northwest of Grand Canyon National Park.

"The national monument only includes federal lands and does not include State and private lands within the boundary or affect the property rights of the State or private landowners," the White House release noted.

Elsewhere, the Biden administration has earmarked US$44 million to strengthen climate resilience across the National Parks system. The funds are part of the larger America the Beautiful Initiative the president has embarked on to conserve and restore 30% of country's "lands and waters" by 2030.

 

 

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