Uranium mining in the West, from Bears Ears to the Grand Canyon, threatens Indigenous and public lands.
Growing up, Talia Boyd lived on the Navajo Nation near the Tuba City, Arizona Disposal Site, which was a former uranium mill. She remembers the kids she’d ride the bus with playing on top of the unfenced piles of tailings.
“We were unknowingly and unwillingly exposed,” she says.
Then, she moved to Church Rock, New Mexico, home of the single largest accidental release of radioactivity in American history – third in the world only to Chernobyl and Fukushima. On July 16, 1979, 94 million gallons of radioactive waste spilled when a dam broke at United Nuclear Corp.’s uranium mill. It seeped into Diné (Navajo) wells, and into the Puerco River, a major source of water for the Diné and their cattle.
Boyd’s stories of living alongside contaminated waste are not the exception for Indigenous people in the United States. They’re the norm. More than 600,000 Indigenous people in the U.S. live within six miles of an abandoned hard rock mine, according to the 2017 Current Environmental Health Report, written by staff at University of New Mexico’s College of Pharmacy.The Church Rock disaster received a fraction of the media attention and, until recently, environmental study and clean up efforts Three Mile Island, a nuclear disaster that occurred a few months prior in Pennsylvania. At Three Mile, a nuclear reactor partially melted down, causing radioactive gases to be released into the air. Many Indigenous people like Boyd feel like the lackluster response to Church Rock was because the spill occurred on rural, Indigenous land.
“It broke my heart,” Boyd reflects on learning about the extensive uranium waste legacy on her homelands. “It lit a fire in me to learn more and educate others.”
Fighting Uranium Mining in Bears Ears
Today, Boyd has been fighting for over a decade to stop the expansion of uranium mining and processing on the Colorado Plateau, including the Daneros uranium mine that sits three miles from the boundary of Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah.
At Bears Ears, red rock spires sprout out of the desert floor. Endless stars blanket the night sky. Whispers of the past beckon from every twist and turn. A kiva here, a wall covered in pictographs there.
In 2016, President Obama designated the area in southeastern Utah a national monument after tireless efforts by the Diné, Hopi, Pueblo of Zuni, Ute Mountain Ute and Ute Indian people to protect their ancestral homeland that the eventual monument encompassed. In 2018, President Trump’s administration unprecedentedly shrank the monument by 85% to make way for resource extraction from oil and gas drilling to uranium mining. The tribes, along with the climbers who scaled the monument’s cracks and hikers who traveled on its trails, took to the streets to protest.
“The Creator left this place for us,” says Boyd who is the cultural landscapes program manager for the Grand Canyon Trust. “We’ve given the land our offerings and prayers, in return for the sustenance and medicine that we’ve gathered from the Earth here since time immemorial. There is respect and balance.”
At Bears Ears, the tribes gather plants for medicine, as well as stones, herbs and crystals for their ceremonies, according to Boyd. Here, they pray. The land is filled with memories of their ancestors from the stories painted on the walls to their structures still standing.
There’s a traditional Diné story about uranium that’s been passed down through generations. The creator gave the tribe a choice between two sacred yellow objects: corn pollen or yellowcake uranium dust. The Diné chose the corn pollen. After they made their choice, the creator warned that if the uranium wasn’t kept in the ground, it would cause destruction. For Diné, like Boyd, the prophetic nature of the story has come true.
Not only does the Daneros mine pose an environmental threat to the monument, it also poses a threat to the Ute Mountain Ute tribe. Despite significant protest from local Indigenous communities, the Bureau of Land Management approved a plan to expand the mine’s operations in 2018. The mine currently sits dormant due to low uranium prices, but when and if it resumes operations truckloads of uranium ore would be moving through the monument each day. Its destination? The White Mesa uranium mill on the edge of the Ute Mountain Ute White Mesa community, less than four miles away.
Uranium ore processing isn’t the only issue at the mill. Nuclear waste from around the country is trucked there to sit in pits near the Ute community. Energy Fuels Inc., the mill’s owner, has also applied for a permit to accept waste from as far away as Estonia and Japan, for recycling purposes. Recently, another reclaimed uranium mine near the monument—the Easy Peasy—was unearthed. These new developments are a cause of concern, according to Boyd.
Is Uranium Mining and Milling Safe?
Studies have shown that uranium radiation is toxic to humans. Exposure through breathing air particles, such as those that result from mining, and drinking water with higher than normal levels of uranium can result in cancer, reduce fertility and shorten life spans.
“We need cumulative health, air, soil and water studies,” Boyd says. “Where other forms of pollution are more visible, you can’t see your exposure to invisible radioactive pollution. That’s the scariest part,” says Boyd.
According to Energy Fuels, Inc.’s vice president of marketing and development Curtis Moore, many concerns over uranium mining and processing stem from practices from the 1950s and 1960s.
“It’s like night and day,” he says. “Just like technology has gotten much better in our cars and computers, our technology and regulations have changed a lot since 1955. We’ve had no instances of environmental or health issues from our operations. I absolutely think it’s safe.”
Moore mentions that nuclear energy is a “carbon-free” alternative to fossil fuels. Today, 20% of the United States’ energy grid is made up of nuclear energy.
Not everyone, though, is convinced that uranium mining and its waste is safe.
“’Newer, safer’ technology is always being boasted about, but our communities are still being contaminated,” Boyd says. “There’s no permanent repository anywhere in the world for this waste, and no one wants it in their front yard.”
Threats to the Grand Canyon
The case of Bears Ears is not unique. All over the West, Indigenous and public lands are experiencing the effects of uranium mining.
On lands surrounding the Grand Canyon, a temporary ban is in place on uranium mining through 2032 to give time for research on its effects. With one exception: The Canyon Mine. Like Daneros, this mine has also laid dormant for decades, thanks to low uranium prices. However, in 2016, as the mine’s owners were deepening the mine shaft, it suddenly began filling with groundwater. Since then, the shaft has taken on over 30 million gallons of water and counting.
This is a problem, according to Grand Canyon Trust’s energy program director, Amber Reimondo, because the normally sedentary uranium becomes highly mobile in water when oxygen is present. Uranium deposits are natural and frequently come into contact with water deep in the Earth. However, without the presence of oxygen, these deposits rarely pose a threat as they can’t disperse in the water. There are many unknowns when it comes to mining in the area and one of those is how the canyon’s hydrogeology works. A USGS study from 2020 established that there is connectivity between shallow and deep aquifers near the Grand Canyon. This means the contaminated water from the mine shaft could eventually threaten the aquifer that provides water to Tusayan, Grand Canyon National Park and the remote Havasupai village of Supai.
In 2018, the Trump administration listed uranium as a “critical mineral,” a designation that means it’s critical to economic and national security. While uranium mining is currently forbidden in wilderness areas, national parks and national monuments, Boyd and her colleagues at the Grand Canyon Trust worry that this new designation will lay the foundation for eroding those protections.
With an estimated 75% of uranium mines in the U.S. on tribal or federal lands, Indigenous people are the ones bearing the brunt of our country’s reliance on nuclear material for both defense and energy. The waste is ending up in their front yards.
Environmental racism – environmental injustice that occurs within a racialized context – is very real in the United States. A 2018 study by the Environmental Protection Agency found that Black, Indigenous and people of color are disproportionately burdened by air pollution.
“Indigenous people have suffered the effects of nuclear contamination since the Manhattan Project,” Boyd reflects.
She sees her work and the work of other Indigenous advocates as a way of reclaiming their space and power.
“We must remember that public lands are ancestral land,” Boyd says. Indigenous peoples are the original stewards of this land.”
Across the West, the fight to protect ancestral and public lands from all fronts continues. You can get involved by visiting GrandCanyonTrust.org to sign up for action alerts on Bears Ears, the Grand Canyon and other lands on the Colorado Plateau.
Update: On October 8, 2021, President Biden restored the original boundaries of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments.