An ongoing series sponsored by the Native American Netroots team focusing on the current issues faced by American Indian Tribes and current solutions to those issues.
There is a reason why we refer to the earth as our mother.
The land lives; it is animated by Spirit. It sustains us: physically, spiritually. We are the land, and it is us - and any injury to it injures us all.
In December, 2009, Canadian corporation Denison Mines opened new uranium mining operations a scant ten miles from the northern perimeter of the Grand Canyon. Uranium mining was halted more than two decades ago in this area, which abuts sacred tribal lands belonging to the Havasupai and Hualapai tribes, both of which have banned the practice. Last July, the Department of the Interior issued a two-year ban on new mining claims in the area while it studied whether to withdraw the lands from such use and extend the ban permanently. And in the week following Interior's decision, Congress held a hearing on proposed legislation that would set aside more than one million acres in the Grand Canyon area to ensure permanent protections.
So how is it that Denison has already begun mining?
AN ONGOING BATTLE
As with all things related to both the environment and to Native communities, the Bush administration systematically dismantled barriers to mining on or near sacred lands. One goal was to open the greater Grand Canyon area to mining, and according to the Environmental Working Group, between 2003 and 2008, new mining claims staked near the perimeter of Grand Canyon National Park jumped from 110 to more than 8,000.
In March, 2009, then-Governor of Arizona Janet Napolitano wrote to Bush interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, requesting both withdrawal of the lands in question from any new claims and an environmental impact assessment. With no action from Interior, Congressman Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) introduced a bill that would ban any new uranium exploration and mining claims on the more than one million acres in question surrounding the Grand Canyon.
In June, 2008, using a procedure known as "emergency withdrawal," the House Natural Resources Committee enacted a resolution ordering the Secretary of the Interior to withdraw more than one million acres around Grand Canyon National Park from all uranium exploration and mining activities in those areas for up to three years. In October, the Bureau of Land Management moved to try to undo it, promulgating a rule to end the emergency withdrawal process entirely. The BLM attempted to ram through the new rule by shortening the public comment period to less than two weeks; meanwhile, the agency refused to recognize the emergency withdrawal order, continuing to recognize new mining claims; by mid-2009, mining claims in the area numbered in the thousands.
Subsequently, a coalition of environmental organizations, including the Grand Canyon Trust, the Center for Biological Diversity, and the Sierra Club, sued to enjoin Kempthorne from recognizing any new claims, and to compel his department to comply with the House emergency resolution.
In January, 2009. Grijalva reintroduced his bill. In July, Obama Administration Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced a withdrawal of the public lands at issueannounced a withdrawal, barring new claims while Interior conducts an analysis to decide whether the land withdrawal should be extended to the legal maximum of 20 years. And during the same month, the Center for Biological Diversity filed a request with the BLM for disclosure of its records related to the dispute. Despite the Obama Administration's directives to agencies to respond fully to disclosure requests, the BLM continues to ignore it; in January, 2010, the Center sued to compel disclosure.
On November 16, 2009, the Grand Canyon Trust, the Center for Biological Diversity, and the Sierra Club again sued in federal district court, to enjoin the BLM from permitting Denison mines to re-open the Arizona 1 uranium mine, defunct since 1992, at the north end of the Grand Canyon. The groups allege that the BLM refuses to conduct environmental impact reviews using current data and technology, instead using the original mine's outdated impact plan from the 1980s in deciding to allow the mine's re-opening. The groups also provide evidence that re-opening the mine will create serious risks to a vulnerable habitat. And as the Southwest Research and Information Center (SRIC) notes:
At issue are the concerns of the Havasupai and Hualapai — including internal divisions generated by promises of economic gain — for their religious traditions, their health, their future, their children, their survival as a people and for the land they regard as sacred.
At great risk is water in the Grand Canyon. Although the mining industry steadfastly claims uranium mining presents no significant risks of radioactive contamination, the fact that all of the Canyon's uranium mines are upstream of the Canyon floor makes contamination by mining waste inevitable. A huge spill at Hack Canyon in 1984, when a summer flash flood washed four tons of high-grade uranium ore from a uranium tailings pile into Kanab Creek and on to the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon, has already demonstrated the devastating potential of uranium waste contamination. And a September 1990 major flood disaster, which nearly wiped out the village and farms of the Havasupai, has testified to the power of flood waters to carry water from mines on the Canyon's rims to the floor below.
Permitting uranium exploration, drilling, and mining on the lands adjacent to the Grand Canyon will have serious adverse effects - both physical and spiritual - on the local Havasupai and Hualapai tribes.
In March of 2008, Charlie Vaughn, the Hualapai tribal chairman, testified before the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands. In that testimony, he noted:
"It is our concern that the proliferation of mining activity near the Grand Canyon may affect the water that flows underground and issues at places like Havasu Falls."
"It is our concern that potential mining sites may compromise traditional and cultural sites that are Hualapai," he said, adding, "suffice it to say we do not want to see the land in proximity to the Grand Canyon scarred by additional roads or mining sites that will be a vestige of the beauty that once was for several generations to come."
Contrast Chairman Vaughn's perspective with that of Pacific Bay Minerals CEO David Brett, who, in an interview last year with AP, called the area "basically unexplored territory" that is geologically crying out to be explored."
Charlie Vaughn's people know better - as do the Havasupai, and the Hopi, and the Diné (Navajo). All four tribes have banned uranium exploration and mining on their lands. But that doesn't prevent contamination from from mining on adjacent lands: leaching into the air, the water, the soil.
ABOUT DENISON MINES
So what's driving Denison?
Or, more accurately, lack thereof. Denison is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. Thanks to the actions of the Bush administration, speculation in uranium-based securities has spiked, bringing their stock value to a high not seen in years. Denison badly needs the revenue that these prices would provide. And it's desperate to get its corporate paws on the uranium deposits around the Grand Canyon.
Anticipating a clear path to their new mining operation courtesy of Bush's Interior Department and BLM, Denison sought to shore up its financial status by acquiring Canadian company Northern Continental Resources. Northern owned a 60% stake in the Russell Lake uranium claim, which lay between and adjacent to two of Denison's own Saskatchewan claims: Wheeler River and Moore Lake. (Hathor Exploration Ltd. held the remaining 40% of the Russell Lake claim.) The deal would have raised the price of Denison's shares significantly, in part because Denison would then wholly own contiguous, uninterrupted parcels, and in part because Russell Lake apparently contained, in Denison's own words, "a number of strong targets" for profitable uranium mining. Unfortunately for Denison, after preliminarily accepting the offer, Northern instead sold its stake in Russell Lake to its minority partner, Hathor. Hathor offered more money, and despite being given a few extra days to match the offer, Denison couldn't do so.
Denison announced the deal on April 30, 2009 - the same day that its CEO, Peter Farmer, was slated to step down. Farmer had been with the firm for nearly a quarter of a century. However, it was already obvious to the industry and to analysts that Denison was in trouble. According to Reuters, in mid-March of 2009
Denison Mines said it suspended some of its operations and that it may have to sell assets to keep from violating a debt covenant. It had also reported a steep quarterly loss of $56.8-million.
Denison Mines shares, which have shed 75% of their value in the past six months, were down 9 cents at 93 Canadian cents Monday morning on the Toronto Stock Exchange.
Despite this dismal financial outlook, on January 25, 2010 (a month after Denison began mining Arizona 1), Reuters reported:
Denison Mines Corp <DML.TO> said on Monday it expects to sell 1.8 million pounds of uranium in 2010 and generate positive cash flow from operations, despite a weak uranium price environment.
The Canadian miner produced 1.4 million pounds of uranium in 2009, while it sold 1.1 million pounds at an average realized price of $51.17 per pound.
The company also said it intends to remain debt-free with cash balances of just under $20 million, as of December 31, 2010.
However, the company expects to post a net loss of $18.5 million, or 5 cents a share in 2010, after providing for depletion, depreciation and amortization.
It's going to sell - in what is supposedly "a weak uranium price environment" - .7 million more pounds that it sold last year? In fact, it's going to sell .4 million pounds more this year than it even produced last year?
Does that tell you something about the value of the uranium deposits beneath the Grand Canyon lands?
Denison also has a long history of conducting its operations on indigenous lands worldwide, to the detriment of the original inhabitants. This is not a new phenomenon - but this time it's something Kossacks can help address.
I'm running very late (Mom is hospitalized), so I'll flesh out these action items later today with links, contact info, and talking points - and I'll have some updated info for the previous sections, too. For those inclined to do something now, you can contact your members of Congress, the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, House and Senate environmental and energy committees, the White House, the Department of the Interior, and the BLM. Demand a complete withdrawal of these lands from all exploration and mining activity, and demand that Congress pass legislation making it permanent.
I had intended to update this diary, including contact info and links, talking points, and contextual information on other examples of mining risks affecting tribal lands, including the Navajo Reservation and Badger-Two Medicine in Montana (courtesy of Kossack Ojibwa). However, because of the length of this diary, the response its garnered, and issues raised in comments, I think it makes more sense to do a separate follow-up diary. Look for that in a few days, and if you have questions about this one, I'll continue to monitor comments here in the meantime.