Friday, October 2, 2009

Origins and Uranium

With another rise in uranium prices, has come still another surge(1-see at end) of prospecting in the Grand Canyon region, in the hope of finding more of the rich mineral pipes that dot the Canyon's underground-scape. Conducted, for a while, with the usual desire to avoid attention, the prospecting aroused an outcry in early 2008. The House of Representatives Committee on Natural Resources held a hearing in Flagstaff on March 28. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz), as head of the Subcommittee on Parks, Forests, and Public Lands, was in the chair. Although from southern Arizona (former base of Stewart & Morris Udall, also environmentally aware on a national scale) Grijalva has immersed himself deeply in issues before the Natural Resources Committee, and so could speak out about this location in northern Arizona. (Though the parochialism of "not in your district" seems a dubious objection given a national treasure, the Grand Canyon, a national resource, uranium, and international corporations, the miners.)

The hearing opened with panels of official representatives from the Navajo, Kaibab Paiute, Havasupai, Hualapai, and Hopi, all opposed to the prospecting. The Navajo have a large, difficult and tragic history with uranium, including from the Lost Orphan (that name is a strange coupling) mine on the South Rim. They had outlawed uranium mining activity in April 2005. The others spoke of uranium as a resource bringing too much danger, as well as the endless episodic seduction efforts by miners--a kind of harassment given that most efforts fizzle(2). The Hualapai, in fact, had been approached a month earlier, although they too have a mining ban, reaffirmed in September 2009. The Havasupai had had their own face-off with miners in the early 1990's; now it has revived(3).

What inspired this post, what I wanted to do is show how an up-to-date issue could be dealt with in part based on testimony about their origin stories from these five representatives, as they explained their concern about mining near the Canyon and its association with those stories. For instance: The Hopi spoke of it as the place of emergence and as well a place of final spiritual rest, while the Hualapai offered more drama-- a flood ended by a Hualapai warrior striking a great spear on the ground creating a spectacular gash in the land.

However, the mushrooming of the mining issue right up to the present moment is irresistible; what could be more appropriate for a blog about the pasts that underlie the Canyon's futures than watching as a sub-tribe, almost the oldest, of the exploiter culture goes up against the oldest of all the tribes, including those who own most of the Canyon's south side(4). Now what makes this confrontation so meaningful is that those who pre-date and were victimized for so long by the whitefolk's politico-legal system are trying to work that system against those, the miners, who most resent and who have for so long fought off having that system inhibit their desires. The 1872 Mining Act should never have reached its centenary, or at least not without wholesale, widespread revision. But there it is, cited again and again by government officials as preventing them from vigorous action to protect people and resources.

The uranium issue has split into several parts. Here, the Forest Service, seeing itself as neutral hands-tied medium, talks of how it relates to the Havasupai's opposition to Denison's Canyon mine near Red Butte:

Two of the four meetings were held on tribal lands. Besides public meetings, however, Forest Service officials also meet with tribes via government-to-government relationships as well. Roughly 100 people turned out for the Supai meeting, Banks said. All the meetings, she said, addressed different topics.
"In general we kind of gave an overview of what the project included and then opened it up for questions and answers. We had a number of poster displays up that gave people specific information and details. We had a resource specialist there, we had an archaeologist, a hydrologist, biologist to answer any questions people might have," Banks said.
Besides the public meetings, forest officials are also accepting comments via the Internet, a toll free number, by mail and fax.
"At some of the meetings we actually had a court stenographer actually taking people's verbal comments and then, down in Supai, they were also videotaping the whole thing," Banks said. "They're going to provide a copy of the video to us for the official project record.

Officials with the Supai tribe voiced their opposition to mining, as well as exploratory drilling, during the meeting.
"They have a lot of concerns about hydrology, about water and impacts to water resources. The actual tribe held a large gathering at Red Butte in which they made it very clear that they were opposed to any kind of mineral exploration, uranium mining," Banks said.
Mike Lyndon, Kaibab National Forest Tribal Liaison, said the matter of uranium mining is a real concern for tribal communities.
"We are really trying to emphasize on this project working with the tribes through a whole bunch of different channels," Lyndon said, adding that the Forest Service works in an official capacity with each tribe, as well as on a "government to government" level.

"Basically what that means is it's our leadership talking to the tribal leadership. We really want that to be a collaborative process. What that means for us is we try to involve the tribes at the very earliest stages of the proposal or analysis. We want to communicate frequently and openly throughout the process and then we want to actually incorporate those tribal comments into the proposal or analysis," Lyndon said.

Forest officials are working with seven tribes in relation to seeking input on the current project: the Navajo Nation, Hopi, Havasupai, Hulapai, Zuni, Yavapai-Prescott, and the Kaibab Piute. "We also work with seven chapters of the Navajo nation," Lyndon said. "The Forest recognizes that the land on the forest was once tribal land and that tribal people have maintained real connections to places on the forest. They have some very unique concerns and interests about management of public lands, in this case the Kaibab National Forest. These are the ancestral lands of these tribes."
But here is the Forest Service's basic position on its power:
Barbara McCurry, the Kaibab National Forest’s spokeswoman on this issue, said her agency had little choice but to allow the drilling under the 1872 mining law that governs hard-rock mining claims. “The exploratory drilling is pretty minimal,” Ms. McCurry said, adding, “Our obligation is to make sure that any impacts are mitigated.”

The Denison corporation is busy, for it wants not only to open the Canyon mine on the south side, but two others on the north side that lie on the Hack Canyon drainage, a tributary of Kanab Creek. See this map, for the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality: 
The ADEQ is involved because for these three existing, but dormant, operations, Denison supposedly only needs permits dealing with air and water quality. In May 2008, ADEQ denied the permits. In September 2009, however, it granted them. At which point, the tribe of environmental lawyers, Center of Biological Diversity band, announced it was giving the Bureau of Land Management 60 days notice. If BLM had by then not moved to update and re-evaluate 20-year-old environmental documents on the mines, it would sue.

CBD had already used the suit route to get the Forest Service to agree to do an Environmental Statement on the exploratory drilling that Vane wanted to do on the Kaibab NF, which of course included on claims near Red Butte. This exploration of claims where there was no proven mineral was what triggered the hearing in early 2008. Following that, Congressman Grijalva had led the Natural Resources Committee to approve a moratorium on new claims in June. That being the Bush administration, it took until this year for agency action. So in July 2009, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar ordered a two-year moratorium on any new claims, then tightened this up by saying that existing claims would have to prove they had valid existing rights, which might mean they would have to show that mineral was actually there, a move anathema to mining speculators. All of this federal action would not affect either the Denison mines or the Vane plans to drill.

Just to keep the picture from clarifying, in early 2009, the WISE-Uranium Project said that DIR Exploration Inc. and Quaterra were making news about their claims. DIRX had issued a self-generated environmental assessment while Quaterra had received BLM approval to prospect in spite of the Congressional moratorium. Later this was clarified by BLM explaining it had authorized Quaterra only to do some paper shuffling, and the Forest Service saying the DIRX document (which found no environmental threat) was not official and it was really busy with the Vane EIS.

And the problem I have with all this is that 30 years ago, an Exxon off-shoot was playing the same sort of games on the Lake Mead NRA around Parashant Canyon. Still, though the game is the same, not all the players are, and it is gratifying to watch leaders of the Havasupai, Hopi, Hualapai, Navajo and Paiute defending the Grand Canyon both in its relationships to their cultures and as a marker for avoiding future harm to people and our environment.

1. Uranium has spawned several such surges since World War II, and a few producing mines. One, on the South Rim near Maricopa Point, has a rich political history all its own. About others, around Kanab Canyon, there are lesser stories, as with the 1990's Havasupai opposition to prospecting near Red Butte south of GCNP. Geology students learn from the Canyon's layers exposing long, long ages past. The mineral pipes are instead vertical exclamation points, geologically, exciting the hopes of that most volatile and intensively destructive, of the exploiter tribes, the mining industry. 

2. A typical result, this one from Dumont Nickel Inc's website: The Arizona Strip region is a well known corridor across northwest Arizona hosting uranium bearing solution-collapse "breccia pipes" which typically manifest as subtle circular surface features or saucer shaped depressions.
Through field work completed during late 2007, Dumont identified 43 circular photo-anomalies on the [Redwall] Property. Detailed subsequent follow-up field work led to the identification of five of these anomalies as collapse features which could be surface expressions of buried collapse structures.
Detailed surface mapping has to date demonstrated that local stratigraphy on the Property is conducive to forming circular features due to dissolution of near-surface gypsum beds, rather than due to buried solution collapse breccia pipes. Surface sampling over the five collapse features returned results which are not sufficiently conclusive to enable drill target definition or area prioritization.
After reconsideration of results in-hand from the past nine months of work, Dumont elected to forego additional work on the Property, and terminated its option arrangement in July, 2008. The claims have since been returned to the original vendor.

3. Kathy Helms of "The Gallup Independent" reported on July 17, 2009, that the Havasupai would host a protest at Red Butte. The Havasupai feared that the re-opening of Canyon mine by Denison Mines of Canada would harm animals, air, water, and people.

4. Many experience the National Park Service as the main tribe -- to continue to stretch this metaphor of human connection -- acting at the Grand Canyon. It is not much in evidence here. I will explore this matter with respect to other issues. Its absence is typical and, historically, somewhat sad, Ken Burns to the contrary.


  1. Happy Birthday! I like the bigger font in the October 2 blog. Do you control that?
    Lots of good, new, information for a US historian here!
    I would be a follower, but I can't figure out how to do that.
    Not very

  2. Well, control is a relative term. I am getting better at it. And thanks for the reaction; I didnt know which is easier to read.
    As for being a follower, I dont know either, and the four who joined say that you need to be signed up with Google to get any benefits. One problem: if you get notices, then you might get several as I publish and then have to edit. For instance, I am having real trouble trying to put maps out there; sometimes it keeps them and sometimes not. And I havent even tried photos yet.