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On June 25th, the Natural Resources’ subcommittee on Energy and Natural Resources held a hearing to discuss Uranium mining’s ‘critical’ status and legacy of contamination. This hearing was focused on H.R. 3405, Uranium Classification Act of 2019, introduced by Rep. Grijalva. The purpose of this bill is to protect some of our nation’s most treasured National Monuments, sacred sites, and public lands from toxic uranium mining.

The U.S. Geological Survey listed uranium as a critical mineral pursuant to President’s Trump’s Executive Order (EO) 13817. The EO defined a critical mineral as(i) a non-fuel mineral or mineral material essential to the economic and national security of the United States, (ii) the supply chain of which is vulnerable to disruption, and (iii) that serves an essential function in the manufacturing of a product, the absence of which would have significant consequences for our economy or our national security.”

First, uranium is neither a fuel mineral nor a mineral material. It therefore cannot be designated as critical.  The Mining and Mineral Policy Act of 1970 describes uranium as a fuel. Additionally, U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration (“EIA”) groups uranium with coal, natural gas, and petroleum as an energy mineral.

Sharon Squassoni, Research Professor at the George Washington University, debunked arguments of the United States’ dependency on international uranium suppliers. Uranium is plentiful underneath our ground, although we import most of our domestic needs from Canada and Australia. She stated that if China were to issue an embargo against the United States this “could actually raise prices and stimulate the development of resources in other countries, including the United States.” Squassoni added that “although uranium may be strategic to the United States, it might not be ‘critical’ as far as supply restrictions are concerned.”  And “if the Trump administration is concerned about non-fuel uses of uranium (excluding nuclear weapons), which are very small in scope and volume compared to fuel uses, the potential vulnerability to supply disruption argument would not merit keeping uranium on the Critical Minerals List.”

The hearing also brought witnesses to share stories from Navajo country to remind Congress of the toxic health legacy left by the Cold War era of uranium mining on their sovereign lands.

Dr. Tom Rock, a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the Rocky Mountain Center for Occupational and Environmental Health, shared stories of how the rush to build more weapons brought more uranium mining affecting Navajo Nation. Dr. Rock expressed his concern about how uranium mining negatively impacts the health of many Indigenous People. He shared that his grandfather worked in a uranium mine and ultimately died from cancer. He states that “people who reside in the Puerco River Valley see higher incidents of cancer due to the high concentration of uranium in their groundwater.” He adds that the science is clear, the contaminated runoff from uranium mining negatively impacts the Puerco River and those who rely on it. Dr. Rock partially blames the problem on the 1872 mining law which provides no comprehensive cleanup plan for uranium mines.

Amber Reimondo, Energy Program Director at Grand Canyon Trust, voiced her support for H.R. 3405.  She also would like to see uranium removed from the critical mineral list. She stated that “the administration’s goal in placing uranium on the critical minerals list was to encourage more uranium mining by relaxing legal safeguards meant to check the damage the mining industry causes.”  She discussed the damage uranium mining has caused to the Grand Canyon and the Colorado Plateau, especially near Native American lands.  She adds that “the Navajo Nation has over 500 abandoned uranium mines in need of cleanup.” She provided examples of problems developed by mines. In 1984, a flash flood washed ore from the Hack Canyon mines (on the north rim of the Grand Canyon into Kanab Creek). Another mine had nearly 3 million gallons water contaminated by exposed uranium ore. The Kanab North uranium mine has blown radioactive dust into nearby ecosystems. The cleanup of these mines have costed Americans billions of dollars.

From these witnesses’ stories, it is clear that uranium mining has brought damage to the environment and people nearby the mines. Similarly, our hopes of protecting places like the Grand Canyon and the Indigenous People who live there, depends upon reforming our mining law and removing uranium from the critical minerals list.

April Urbanowski is a former law clerk at Earthworks.