With the cost of uranium skyrocketing, a once-dormant industry might burst back to life in Utah’s backyard

Energy Fuels Resources Inc. has said that it wants to start mining uranium on a mine near the Grand Canyon. That uranium would be processed in Utah.

Carletta Tilousi, a member of the Havasupai Tribe, was born and raised in a village at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. The Havasupai have lived there since time immemorial.

When she was just 14, Tilousi remembers traveling for a full day to Red Butte, a sacred mountain at the center of Havasupai creation stories located near the Grand Canyon, to protest uranium mining with her tribe’s leaders and elders in the 1980s.

“Our elders said, ‘we’re not willing to sit back and wait until it happens. We have to protect this water and take the lead to protect not only the waters, but our sacred mountains and burial sites and our trails,’” Tilousi told The Salt Lake Tribune.

Then, Havasupai leaders worried that the U.S. Forest Service allowing mining claims around Red Butte and the Grand Canyon would endanger their water supply. They have the same concerns today.

In August, President Joe Biden designated 917,000 acres around the Grand Canyon, including Red Butte, as the Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni — Ancestral Footprints of the Grand Canyon National Monument.

The new monument turns an Obama-era moratorium on new mining claims in and around the Grand Canyon, issued in 2012, into a ban — with two exceptions. Two mines within the monument’s boundaries have had their pre-2012 mining claims grandfathered in.

One is Pinyon Plain Mine, operated by the largest producer of uranium in the United States: Energy Fuels Resources Inc.

This once-dormant industry may be bursting back to life in Utah’s backyard, since Energy Fuels also owns the White Mesa Mill, the last conventional uranium mill in the country, in Blanding. Uranium mined at Pinyon Plain would be transported there for processing.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Pinyon Plain Mine has never produced uranium ore. But with concerns over energy security and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine pushing uranium prices to the highest they’ve been in a decade, Energy Fuels is looking to start mining around the Grand Canyon — soon.

“If you’re looking at America’s lowest-cost, most economically competitive uranium, that uranium is in this area,” Curtis Moore, senior vice president of marketing and corporate development for Energy Fuels, told The Tribune.

But for environmental advocates and the Havasupai, uranium mining is a Pandora’s box not worth opening — not for clean energy nor national security.

Cutting emissions and foreign dependence

Uranium is the fuel for nuclear energy, which is “a zero-emission clean energy source” according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Biden has pushed emissions reductions since he was elected president, with the goal of cutting the country’s greenhouse gas emissions by 50 to 52% from 2005 levels by 2030.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration reported that the United States received nearly half of its imported uranium from Kazakhstan, Russia and Uzbekistan in 2022.

Utah industry leaders say that banning new mining claims on the monument jeopardizes the United States’ ability to produce its own uranium, exposing the nation to supply chain and security risks, like having to depend on Russia and its allies for the metal.

The United States does not have as much high-quality uranium as these countries, but the highest-grade uranium that can be found domestically is in the Grand Canyon region, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

“I always find it a little frustrating when we’re told that we need to support clean energy initiatives, or we need to support our modern economy and not be reliant on foreign actors, but that we can’t do uranium mining anywhere,” said Brian Somers, president of the Utah Mining Association, of which Energy Fuels is a member.

“That’s not just ideological inconsistency. To me, that’s flat-out hypocrisy,” Somers told The Tribune.

‘Protecting what we still have left’

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

The vast majority of water that’s used in the Grand Canyon area comes from groundwater pumped from wells or flowing from springs. The biggest concern for tribes and environmental groups in the region is that uranium mining will contaminate these vital groundwater supplies.

In the 1950s, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission said it would buy all uranium produced in the United States, which ushered in a uranium mining boom in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah.

Many uranium mines were located on tribal land. The mines hired many Native Americans in the Four Corners region, who then experienced high rates of cancer and other radiation-borne illnesses.

Victims organized throughout the subsequent decades, and their efforts eventually culminated in the passage of the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act in 1990.

Tilousi grew up hearing about the effects that uranium mining had on neighboring tribes, and now, she fears that history may be repeating itself.

After Tilousi earned her degree from Arizona State University, she returned to her community and was elected to the Havasupai Tribal Council. Her platform focused on protecting the Grand Canyon.

“Our community at that time really wanted to stand firm on protecting what we still have left, as far as our sacred places,” Tilousi said.

Efforts to ban uranium mining around the Grand Canyon started long before the creation of Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni — Ancestral Footprints of the Grand Canyon National Monument.

Arizona Rep. Raúl Grijalva, chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Natural Resources Committee, led multiple charges in Congress to outlaw new mining on 1 million acres surrounding the Grand Canyon starting in 2008. In 2012, then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar issued a 20-year moratorium on new mining claims around the Grand Canyon.

This year, the Grand Canyon Tribal Coalition asked Biden to create Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni – Grand Canyon National Monument to protect nearly 1 million acres around the Grand Canyon. The Coalition represents 12 tribes who call the Grand Canyon region home, including the Havasupai Tribe, Hopi Tribe, Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah and the Navajo Nation.

Biden followed through in August.

‘As healthy and non-threatening as mining gets’

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Somers told The Tribune that he understands the fear and trepidation surrounding uranium exploration and mining in the Southwest.

“But I do think that people have to acknowledge that we’ve made so much progress in the mining industry,” Somers said. “Things are so much safer today.”

Pinyon Plain Mine, previously called Canyon Uranium Mine, was permitted in the late 1980s. The 17-acre site is located near the south rim of the Grand Canyon and Red Butte with a mine shaft nearly 1,500 feet deep, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

Moore said that Energy Fuels has identified 3 million pounds of uranium at Pinyon Plain Mine, but the company thinks there’s even more.

“If you’re going to mine for clean energy minerals, this is about as low-impact and as healthy and non-threatening as mining gets,” Moore said.

(Sharon Chischilly | The New York Times) Pinyon Plain Mine, a uranium mine less than 10 miles from the southern rim of the Grand Canyon, near Flagstaff, Ariz., on April 18, 2022.

Moore says that Energy Fuels is certain that Pinyon Plain Mine does not pose a threat to groundwater or the Grand Canyon.

The mine is heavily regulated, he added, with a web of oversight from agencies like the U.S. Forest Service and the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality to monitor air quality, water quality and radiation.

Since 2016, the mine has pumped out millions of gallons of water a year from the mine shaft, according to reports obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune.

While digging the mine shaft, workers hit a perched aquifer, which Moore said was expected. Perched aquifers are small, isolated bodies of water that form above an impermeable layer of rock.

The water pumped out of the mine is naturally contaminated with trace amounts of metals like arsenic, lead and uranium, according to the reports. Energy Fuels continuously pumps water out of the shaft up to a “lined” evaporation pond on the surface.

“They’re under a lot of scrutiny, and so they’re translating that into being safest,” said Amber Reimondo, energy director for the Grand Canyon Trust, a nonprofit that advocates for the conservation of the greater Grand Canyon landscape. “But just because a lot of eyes are on them and scrutinizing their every single move doesn’t mean that contamination won’t happen.”

After Energy Fuels gets uranium from Pinyon Plain Mine, the company will truck it to White Mesa Mill in Blanding for processing. The mill is located just north of the Ute tribal community and east of Bears Ears National Monument.

(EcoFlight) White Mesa Mill in September 2021.

In October of this year, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe marched to protest uranium processing at White Mesa Mill. But while environmentalists and tribes see White Mesa Mill’s recommitment to uranium processing as a threat to their communities, Energy Fuels sees it as an opportunity to jump-start local economies.

The White Mesa Mill is the largest private employer in San Juan County, one of Utah’s poorest counties. Energy Fuels reports that the mill can employ up to 150 people when it’s at full operation.

In the federal government’s hands

(John Locher | AP) President Joe Biden speaks before signing a proclamation designating the Baaj Nwaavjo I'Tah Kukveni National Monument at the Red Butte Airfield Tuesday, Aug. 8, 2023, in Tusayan, Ariz.

The same trepidations held about uranium mining in the 20th century linger in the face of lofty clean energy goals, mitigating the country’s dependence on foreign adversaries and stimulating a rural economy.

Tilousi still considers the Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni — Ancestral Footprints of the Grand Canyon National Monument designation a massive win, despite the threat she believes Pinyon Plain Mine poses to her community.

But now, she said, it’s up to the federal agencies that manage the monument to protect her tribe’s most sacred places.

“Biden did grandfather this mine in the national monument, recognizing that it’s a clean energy resource,” Moore said. “There’s lots of other of these similar deposits out there that I think should be mined at some point, if you can prove that you can do it responsibly.”

Right now, Energy Fuels has about 30 people completing development work at Pinyon Plain Mine, according to Moore. The company is also preparing its mines in Utah and Colorado for uranium extraction.

Tilousi said that she and members of her community will continue to monitor Pinyon Plain Mine themselves — just like they did when she was 14.

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