By Miranda Green
June 6, 2019 - Democratic lawmakers are challenging a new Trump administration report they say is – along with other White House moves – a precursor to opening the Grand Canyon to uranium mining.
Speaking at a House natural resources hearing Wednesday, various lawmakers challenged the plan, arguing the U.S. did not need to mine for its own uranium – and definitely didn't need to mine the Grand Canyon.
The Commerce Department report, titled "Federal Strategy to Ensure Secure and Reliable Supplies of Critical Minerals," released Tuesday night, lays out methods to ensure the federal government is mining what it considers “critical minerals” for national security purposes. In May the Interior Department added uranium to that list, an action that put many environmentalist and land conservations on edge.
“Even if we agreed with this premise that uranium mining was a national security issue – and I do not agree with that premise – it is important to note that the Grand Canyon region only holds .29 percent of known U.S uranium reserves. That’s less than three tenths of one percent of known U.S. uranium reserves,” said Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.) at the legislative hearing.
Rep. Debra Haaland (D-N.M.) Chair of the subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands committee said the report appears to jumpstart plans that would expose “tribal communities and Arizonans to the dangerous impacts of uranium mining.”
The U.S. currently relies completely on imports to supply its demand for 14 critical minerals, including uranium. President Trump in 2017 directed federal agencies through an executive order to determine how to reduce the likelihood of critical mineral supply disruptions, a point echoed in the latest report.
“The United States is heavily dependent on foreign sources of critical minerals and on foreign supply chains resulting in the potential for strategic vulnerabilities to both our economy and military,” it reads.
Many uranium reserves lie near the Grand Canyon. The national park has been mined for the mineral in the past but critics say the action caused irreversible environmental damage and threatened the groundwater there.
“Currently over half of our uranium supplies come from our strongest allies, we’re talking about Australia and Canada, while the U.S. Department of Energy estimates that we already have access to enough uranium to meet our military needs until 2060,” Lowenthal said, arguing the administration was making a weak case for the need of new mining.
Despite a 20-year federal moratorium on the mining of uranium in the U.S. instituted in 2012 by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar under the Obama administration, lawmakers and others are seeing the Trump administration’s latest move as an assault on the ban. They believe the new rule puts the existing safeguard on the chopping block.
Last June, following backlash from one environmental group, an Interior Spokesperson under former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke tweeted, "The Secretary has no intention to revisit uranium mining in and around the canyon and has made exactly zero moves to suggest otherwise."
However, current Interior Secretary David Bernhardt championed Trump’s leadership on the issue.
“Today’s federal strategy lays out a blueprint for America to once again be a leader in the critical minerals sector,” said Bernhardt in a statement. “As with our energy security, the Trump Administration is dedicated to ensuring that we are never held hostage to foreign powers for the natural resources critical to our national security and economic growth.”
He promised Interior would work “expeditiously” to help streamline the permitting process and locate domestic supplies of minerals.
The announcement came after Trump earlier named June the “Great Outdoors Month.”
Environmental groups called Commerce’s plan mining deregulation at its finest. Critics also pointed to the fact that Trump appointed Bernhardt and EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, who were both former energy lobbyists.
“The books were cooked for these uranium mining corporations when Trump appointed two former lobbyists to cabinet positions, both who previously lobbied for and represented the very corporations that stand to benefit from these recommendations. Don’t be surprised if an import quota on uranium comes down the pipeline soon,” said Western Values Project Executive Director Chris Saeger in a statement.
“The threat of lifting the uranium mining moratorium and opening the Grand Canyon withdrawal area to industrial-scale uranium mining is real.”
But House lawmakers are hoping to bind the Trump administration’s hands on the issue. Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) along with 99 other members of Congress introduced a bill this week to make the 20-year mining moratorium established in 2012 permanent. The bill would keep off limits approximately one million acres of public lands north and south of the Grand Canyon from mining.
“The people of Arizona know the facts, that uranium mining is a threat to our precious water resources, to our tribal communities, and to one of our greatest national treasures,” Grijalva said.
Interior did not return a request for comment on whether the new guidelines will circumvent the previous mining moratorium, or whether they will seek to mine in the Grand Canyon.