Christopher Cadeau and Lillian Donahue

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Tribal representatives help Havasupai advocate against canyon mining

SUPAI – The beat of a single drum rang out as Dianna White Dove Uqualla sang a prayer for a group of runners about to climb out of the deep crevasse of the Grand Canyon.

“This is a blessing song for all of you,” said Uqualla, who hails from a long line of respected healers of the Havasupai Tribe. “You’ve blessed us much with your journey.”

Thus blessed, the six Native American runners and a guest headed to finish the over 20 miles of Grand Canyon trails, but not before they collected 25 handwritten letters from the children of Havasupai Elementary School. Every letter was addressed to President Donald Trump, asking him to stop new uranium mining near their homes within the canyon.

The campaign is “an adolescent plea with the president to not gamble with their future,” one tribal member said.

Havasupai tribal member Houston W. raps on the rim of the Grand Canyon while waiting to for helicopter ride into Supai Village. “I’m making a music video,” he said. (Photo by Chris Cadeau / Cronkite News)

Tribal members fear that future will be in jeopardy if Energy Fuels Inc. gets its way. The company owns a uranium mine that sits a few miles off the South Rim entrance to Grand Canyon National Park. Energy Fuels will continue mining preparations after the Trump administration reaffirmed a uranium mining ban imposed by the Obama administration that excluded Canyon Mine.

The children’s letter campaign, conducted on Valentine’s Day, was led by a visibly emotional Arizona Rep. Eric Descheenie, D-Chinle, who waited for other runners at a footbridge that guides hundreds of thousands of people a year over the turquoise waters of Havasu Creek into Supai and the waterfalls that tumble beyond the village.

“The kids down here are being told that their futures may be in peril,” Descheenie said. “I don’t want them exposed to uranium. My children are in elementary school. Havasupai Elementary School is here. To be able to elevate their voices to the most powerful man in the free world is an honor. It’s the epitome of privilege when it comes to leadership.”

The people and the run

The Havasupai – the name means people of the blue-green waters – are one of the smallest tribes in North America, and they’ve battled canyon mining for decades.

“We are very connected to our land from thousands of years ago,” Uqualla said. “The water, the land and the ability to survive was why (our elders) picked here. And we raise our babies in this water.”

Supai is nestled within Havasu Canyon, which is adjacent to Grand Canyon National Park. The tiny village was established in 1880 and is accessible only by foot, horse, mule or helicopter. Enclosed by red rock canyons, it sits on the south side of the Colorado River, 56 miles away from the Energy Fuels Inc.’s Canyon Mine. But Havasupai officials fear mine contaminants will seep into the groundwater, harming their children and destroying their way of life.

Supai Village, home of the Havasupai Tribe in the heart of the Grand Canyon, is seen from above from an approaching helicopter. (Photo by Chris Cadeau / Cronkite News)

More than 60 percent of the Havasupai Tribe is younger than 18, according to a 2016 University of Arizona Community Profile.

“The children have a strong voice,” said Jonathan Nez, vice president of the Navajo Nation, who said he decided to join Descheenie and other supporters as a show of tribal solidarity, “and we let them know that their ancestors fought very hard to continue their way of life. They are doing the same by writing these letters.”

An eighth-grader at Havasupai Elementary said she appreciated the opportunity to be heard beyond the walls of their remote canyon.

“It’s incredible, because I didn’t know other people knew Supai existed,” Tajh-Rae Deroche said. “It’s really awesome to have them here come and help us make a bigger voice out of us.”

Some Havasupai members keep their distance from the tourists who flock to their village. They usually aren’t open to allowing reporters onto their land. Generally, they don’t allow videotaping or filming, and most villagers decline to speak to reporters.

However, on this occasion, some made an exception, hoping to get the word out on the run and its mission.

“I really hope that wherever these recordings or things are going that people will really listen, and that truth of what we need to do for the human race is in this word,” Uqualla said.

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A history of discord

In 2012, under former President Barack Obama, a 20-year ban was imposed on uranium mining to research its potential effects on the Grand Canyon’s ecosystem. The ban was supported by Native Americans who say that uranium mining on some reservations has had tragic consequences.

“We’ve been hurt so much by uranium exploration in tribal communities,” Nez said. “That legacy is there, and nobody is there to clean up the mess.”

According to Grand Canyon Trust, an environmental group, the Pin Nut uranium mine, also owned by Energy Fuels located on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, filled with more than three million gallons of contaminated water after the mine ceased operations in the early 1990s. A faulty mine shaft seal was blamed.

In an earlier incident, an estimated 94 million gallons of contaminated water spilled from a uranium mine in Church Rock, New Mexico, in 1979. The cleanup, and the effects of the spill, are still affecting those who live in that area almost four decades later.

The Obama administration instituted a 20-year ban on uranium mining near the Grand Canyon for research on its dangers. The U.S. 9th District Court reaffirmed the ban in December 2017, while lifting or striking down challenges for six mines. Now, tribal members await mining to begin at the Canyon Mine, which sits less than 10 miles south of the South Rim entrance of Grand Canyon National Park and less than 6 miles from Grand Canyon National Park Airport.

The science

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, uranium mining has been linked to many forms of cancer and kidney diseases.

Effects on water supplies also has been an issue. Roger Clark, program director at the Grand Canyon Trust, has written multiple blogs outlining the potential dangers Canyon Mine presents.

“There’s an underground mining operation occurring 5,000 feet above a major aquifer, a regional aquifer,” Clark said, referring to the Canyon Mine. “If all water is removed from the shaft, then most risk of groundwater contamination can be eliminated. Last summer, before Canyon Mine even struck ore, it hit a perched aquifer. And then they ran out of room in the contamination pond and couldn’t pump anymore water out of the shaft.”

Clark said Canyon Mine released the excess contaminated water into the atmosphere by way of misters and used trucks to speed up the removal process.

The aquifer, named the Redwall-Mauv, feeds many water seeps and springs inside the Grand Canyon. Water from this aquifer then flows into Havasu Canyon, which feeds directly into Havasu Creek, according to the Grand Canyon Trust.

The Redwall-Mauv aquifer is Havasupai’s sole source of drinking water. Clark said risk of contamination can last long after the mine closes. Once ore is reached, uranium oxide is water soluble and deadly. It may not show up for years, but the threat remains.

To try and prevent this from happening, mining companies and individual mines must pass tests required by the Environmental Protection Agency, the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service, and the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality before mining can begin.

Every day, uranium erodes naturally into the Grand Canyon. Currently, there’s no approved tribal water quality standards and no proposed or promulgated standards applicable to the Havasupai tribe, according to the EPA.

[2up_image_slim source1=”” caption1=”Water dances over the Havasupi Falls. (Photo by Chris Cadeau/Cronkite News)” source2=”” caption2=”Energy Fuels Inc.’s Canyon Mine is located less than 10 miles from the gates of Grand Canyon National Park. (Photo by Chris Cadeau/Cronkite News)”]

The mine

Canyon Mine’s parent company, Energy Fuels Inc., formed in Toronto and its head office still operates in Canada. Its corporate headquarters in the United States is based in Colorado, and it denies the Canyon Mine operation will cause harm to the Havasupai tribe and environment.

Energy Fuels guarantees at “99.999 percent certainty” that the groundwater will not be impacted by Canyon Mine due to the amount of regulation placed on the company before, during and after the completion of mining activity.

Curtis Moore, vice president of marketing and corporate development for Energy Fuels, said Canyon Mine is in compliance with all state and federal government regulations when asked if the company takes extra precautions to ensure environmental safety when mining.

“Uranium mining, is as far as we can tell, the only form of mining in the state that doesn’t require groundwater monitoring,” Clark said. “If (Energy Fuels) is that sure, then they should have no problem paying for and installing at least three groundwater monitoring wells around Canyon Mine.”

The underground uranium deposit was discovered at Kaibab National Forest in the late 1970s. The mine that sits above it is classified as a small uranium and copper mine stretching 12 to 15 acres.

Moore said the mine has the potential to yield 2 million pounds of uranium and could fuel the state of Arizona for an entire year. Uranium is used to by the military to power military assets, make nuclear weapons and to power nuclear power plants.

“We get about 20 percent of our electricity in the United States from nuclear; and about 60 percent of our carbon free energy from nuclear,” Moore said.

On a personal level, he said, he cares for the Grand Canyon’s landscape and the Havasupai people.

“I wish we could show them there’s really going to be no impact from this mine on their town of Supai, on Havasu Creek, on any of the creeks, or seeps, or springs, or anything inside the Grand Canyon,” Moore said. “If I really thought that there was any chance that we were going to harm any of it, I simply couldn’t work for this company.”

Energy Fuels Inc. executives have said they disagree with previous media coverage of the company, after press reports highlighted its role as a major lobbyist in bringing back uranium mining, supported by policies put into place by the Trump Administration.

C.E.O. Mark Chalmers sent a letter to employees, responding to a recent article in The New York Times.

In it, Chalmers said the Times piece was “full of innuendo, half-truths, obfuscation, and conspiracies, including a major distortion of our position on Bears Ears National Monument.”

Owners of U.S. nuclear power reactors purchased 50.6 million pounds of uranium in 2016. Only 11 percent of the uranium delivered to U.S. reactors was produced in the U.S. and 89 percent came from other countries in 2016, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

A child of Havasupai runs after a his ball while walking accompanied in Supai Village. (Photo by Chris Cadeau / Cronkite News)

Impact on tribe and traditions

Generation after generation, the Supai teach their young that water needs to be treated with respect because one day, it will be worth more than gold.

“They taught us these things growing up, and this is why I’m so strong in my traditional walk (acknowledgment of tribal traditions),” Uqualla said. “In this time, we’re looking very much at making sure our home is here, and our children have a place to call home. People have to have a home, otherwise they feel lost.”

Those who hike the Grand Canyon also worry about what will happen to the natural beauty of the canyon if mining resumes.

“It’s magnificent. I can’t imagine that they would actually go through with mining,” Brian Rickerson said a hiking out of Havasupai. “I don’t think uranium mining should happen at all down here. I’m from Florida, and I’ve seen what happens when the government and-or industry gets involved with the ecosystem.”

And the Havasupai worry about what will happen to them economically if people stop coming to the canyon.

The Havasupai sold off their casino rights and have cut ties with banking conglomerates that damage the environment. Now they rely on revenue from a 24-room lodge, a trading post, a cafe, and its guided tours and campgrounds. Tourism is a major source of revenue.

According to Grand Canyon Adventures, a 2018 single-day camping rate is $140.56 per person. That means Havasupai can welcome an estimated 127,750 tourists this year. The tribe issues 350 camping permits daily, with permits selling out within months of going on sale. That’s nearly $18 million per year in tourism revenue on the low end.

The median household income is $25,833, with the majority of the those employed – more than 90 percent – working for the U.S. federal government.

What’s next

After the seven runners made it out of the canyon, letters in hand, Descheenie traveled by plane to Washington, D.C., where Havasupai Tribal Councilwoman Carletta Tilousi and the Executive Director of the Navajo Nation Washington Office Jackson Brossy met him. Together, the three delivered the letters to William H. Kirkland, special assistant to the president and deputy director of intergovernmental affairs, on Feb. 16.

“We need to continue to look long term about how we can take care of our most vulnerable populations,” Descheenie said. “At the end of the day, it’s industry, it’s business, it’s commerce. This country’s history is rooted in just that. When it’s a matter of life and death, it’s a no-brainer. The answers should be ‘No.’ ”

Meanwhile, officials with Energy Fuels Inc. said extraction hasn’t started yet at Canyon Mine, and preparations are still underway.

For the Havasupai tribe, the battle is not over yet.

“This land is a part of us,” Uqualla said. “We’re trying to ensure that our children have this land for years to come. We are the rocks. We are the people. We are a part of this world. One mind, and one heart.”

Havasupai Creek feeds the blue-green waters of Havasupai falls. (Photo by Chris Cadeau/Cronkite News)