The Grand Canyon is remarkable for its awe-inspiring scenery, precious geological value, and diverse flora and fauna. It is a natural wonder recognized by UNESCO, and also happens to be the site of significant underground uranium deposits.
These deposits have made it a prime target for energy companies seeking to privatize the public commons that the uranium represents. Unfortunately, natural resource extraction can have devastating consequences for public health and the natural environment. President Barack Obama is now considering designating the area a national monument, to add new protections to the lands and waters of the Grand Canyon, and prevent potential environmental disaster.
Arizona has a long history of traditional mining. In 2014, the state reported 303 active mining operations employing a total of 25,660 people. The entire industry generates a staggering $12 billion of the state’s GDP. Due to market fluctuations and government restrictions, there are no active uranium mining operations in the state at this time, but between 1918 and the early 21st century, traditional uranium mining in Arizona yielded tens of millions of pounds of uranium, valued at approximately $65 per pound.
While the mining industry benefits Arizona by contributing substantially to the state’s GDP, it is often accused of hoarding publicly-owned natural resources. Such speculative hoarding is common in unregulated or under-regulated industries. The vast majority of mining operations occur on public land, which accounts for 82% of Arizona’s total landmass. Federal law, through the General Mining Act of 1872, permits US citizens to stake a natural resource claim on public land and subsequently extract that resource. While mining operations are subject to state and federal taxes, they are not required to share revenue from their operations. Natural resources, as a public commons, comprise a large share of a nation’s wealth and, as such, ought to generate substantial economic rents. An excellent example of this in action comes from Norway and the management of its oil.
The consequence of ignoring this potentially substantial source of tax revenue is that the government must turn to taxing human productive work via income and sales taxes. Consequently, economists have long argued that governments and their constituents would be best-served if public revenue was instead derived from natural resource extraction, regulated, and utilized for the common good.
Uranium mining in Arizona has a history of disastrous environmental and public health consequences. Following World War II, the United States increased uranium production in order to produce more nuclear weapons, and mining companies hired large numbers of Navajo people to work the mines. Incidence of diseases caused by excessive radiation exposure increased sharply because companies failed to adequately protect those workers. Uranium mining has polluted 15 springs and five wells in the Grand Canyon watershed with toxic levels of uranium, requiring multi-million dollar government-funded cleanup measures.
It is clear from this history that uranium mining companies have proven themselves incapable, under current regulations, of operating without jeopardising people or damaging the critical lands and waters of the Grand Canyon watershed. Introducing royalties for uranium mining would fund implementation and enforcement of regulations that would lead to greener mining.
As uranium prices increased in the early 21st century, mining companies increasingly pursued access to the vast uranium deposits surrounding the Grand Canyon. In 2012, the federal government, recognizing the need to protect “natural, cultural and social resources in the Grand Canyon watershed,” issued a 20-year moratorium on new mining operations in lands surrounding the Grand Canyon. The order applies to all mining but is primarily aimed at uranium mining. The reaction from Arizona and the mining industry was swift, citing the order as an example of federal overreach and petitioning for it to be overturned. This case has now been challenged in federal court.
Many Arizona citizens have applauded the federal government, citing the enormous importance of the Grand Canyon for Arizona’s cultural heritage and economy. To many, permitting uranium mining on this stunning landscape would not only jeopardize the massive tourist activity driven by the Canyon, but would irreparably degrade a monument that is held close to the heart of Arizonans.
The federal government is now trying to make its moratorium permanent by declaring the lands surrounding the Grand Canyon as the Greater Grand Canyon Heritage National Monument. The monument was first proposed in 2015 and has support from 80% of Arizona voters, the Navajo Nation, and other key Native American tribes. The plan has stalled in Congress due to Republican opposition, but President Obama has the singular authority to bypass Congress and designate the area a monument by invoking the Antiquities Act.
An alternative approach would be to regulate the uranium mining more stringently, with the additional regulation and mining oversight financed by uranium royalties. While that may well require congressional approval, it would permit the mining to take place and that it be done under careful stewardship.
It is not yet clear which action President Obama will take, but support for the monument is a profound example of citizens recognizing the importance of their natural inheritance and taking steps to protect it. Concerned citizens can write to President Barack Obama at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave NW, Washington, DC 20500 or call the White House at (202) 456-1111.