Energy Fuel Resources Tries to Downplay Grand Canyon Cancer Concerns

Energy Fuel Resources Tries to Downplay Grand Canyon Cancer Concerns


Featured image: Members of the Havasupai Tribe overjoyed to see the success of their resistance when the Flagstaff City Council announced their uranium hauling ban. Photo: Dustin Wero

     by  / Intercontinental Cry

As the Canyon Mine’s operations to extract uranium ore adjacent to Red Butte edged closer to reality last November, Flagstaff’s City Council made the significant decision to oppose federal laws that would allow the transport of uranium ore through the Arizona city and the Navajo Nation’s territory. In Resolution No. 2017-38, the City Council went so far as to declare that it opposes uranium mining, while reaffirming its status as a Nuclear Free Zone and resolving “to actively work to advance social and environmental justice for the Indigenous Community.” This City Council’s bold move arrived at a crucial moment in the ongoing uranium mining debate, and it was most assuredly a win for everyone resisting the operations of Energy Fuels Resources.

More than 100 people were in attendance at the resolution vote. Many voiced their concerns about the proposal to transport large amounts of radioactive ore through communities like Flagstaff and across the Navajo Nation on its path to refinement. Members of the Havasupai, Navajo, Hopi, Apache, and Pueblo nations attended the meeting to express solidarity with the proposed motions.

Councilmember Eva Putzova issued a statement later on, saying, “With this resolution, the Council is rallying behind the Native American communities in their fight for social and environmental justice. I’m looking forward to working with our congressional representative and state representatives on legislation that bans uranium mining and the transport of uranium ore for good,” according to Haul No!, an activist and educational organization that’s fighting the uranium haul route.

Representatives of Haul No! in front of Monument Valley on the Navajo Nation. Photo: Dustin Wero.

But while Flagstaff moved one step closer to impeding the uranium mining industry, the nation as a whole opened up even more protected lands to the resource extraction industry. During the fall season, Trump talked about letting more uranium mining around the Grand Canyon region. Then, in December 2017, he reduced Bears Ears and the Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments, setting off what The New York Times predicted would be “a legal battle that could alter the course of American land conversation.” The decision opened millions of preserved public acres to oil and gas extraction, mining, and logging. One month later, he opened up land in Bears Ears National Monument for further resource drilling.

The nation recently learned about Energy Fuels Resources when documents obtained by The Washington Post showed that the company “launched a concerted lobbying campaign to scale back Bears Ears National Monument, saying such action would give it easier access to the area’s uranium deposits and help it operate a nearby processing mill.” Energy Fuels officials had pushed the White House to reduce Bears Ears as much as possible to minimally protect the “key objects and areas, such as archeological sites, to make it easier to access the radioactive ore.” The Canadian company has been designing similar plans that would result in the desecration of sacred spaces and practices—earning the attention of local conservation organizations focused on the Grand Canyon Region as covered throughout our series.

Indigenous communities know the history and the effects of nuclear colonialism. “My great-grandfather was a soldier who fought in Normandy, lived, and returned home to provide for his family,” said Sarana Riggs, a member of the Navajo Nation and the Native American Coordinator for the Grand Canyon Trust. Her great-grandfather worked at the Rare Metals Uranium Mill on the Navajo Reservation while facing the unknown dangers of radioactivity throughout his life. Riggs said the problem surfaced at its peak 10 years ago when he was suffering from pains that no one realized were due to stomach cancer.

Riggs great-grandfather soon passed away from the disease. The Rare Metals Mill has since been shut down, and houses around the mill were subsequently demolished due to documented health and environmental effects on nearby families and homes.

The Mitten in Monument Valley on the Navajo Nation. Areas like this are where the planned haul route will pass through. Photo: Dustin Wero.

Members of the Navajo Nation also struggle with the health repercussions due to the 523 abandoned uranium mines and 22 wells closed by the EPA due to high levels of radioactive pollution. According to the EPA, “Approximately 30 percent of the Navajo population does not have access to a public drinking water system and may be using unregulated water sources with uranium contamination.” A disproportionate number of the 54,000 Navajo living on the reservation now suffer from organ failure, kidney disease, loss of lung function, and cancer.

The Canyon Mine could have a similar impact on the Havasupai Nation and millions of Americans who depend on water from the Colorado River.

Riggs and others present during the Flagstaff City Council’s resolution meeting were relieved to see Flagstaff recognizing that members of the Navajo Nation and surrounding indigenous nations also make up the Flagstaff community. “Many travel over 80 miles to Flagstaff each day for work, school, or medical needs,” Riggs explained. “Flagstaff recognized the Navajo Nation, dealing with over 500 abandoned uranium mines, doesn’t need uranium hauling on top of that.”

The resolution was symbolic because the federal government, not the town of Flagstaff controls those roads. According to a press release by Haul No!, during the resolution meeting, Councilmember Celia Barotz reminded those in attendance that, “‘this is just the beginning, and we’re going to need all of you to help us through the various processes at the state and federal level if we’re going to make meaningful changes over the next several years.’” Borotz implored the community to remain engaged in the ensuing debate.

“With a unified voice of Flagstaff, Havasupai, Navajo, and Hopi communities, I hope representatives will address this,” said Riggs. “This isn’t U.S. land. They might have laws controlling Navajo highways, but ancestrally these are our lands. We’re upholding our rights. I’m looking at the Navajo Nation now to stand up, fight, and hold our leaders accountable because this is a threat to our health.”

Prior to the resolution, the Indigenous Environmental Network gave the city council a report detailing education, economic development, and social justice regarding Indigenous Peoples throughout Flagstaff, Riggs said.“The city hasn’t been so friendly to us native people. We’re more likely to get arrested or harassed by police and not always given the same treatment in businesses.” Following the report, the city council committed to addressing some of these problems. “The uranium transport resolution is one of the first steps,” said Riggs. “I hope the decision sets a precedent recognizing we have equal rights to everyone in Flagstaff.”

The final decision by the Flagstaff City Council was not without significant debate from both sides through months of town hall meetings. At one meeting this past July, the President and COO of Energy Fuels, Mark Chalmers, was in attendance to declare support for the mining operation. In defense of the project, Chalmers told the council that the uranium transported by Energy fuels is coming out of the ground in a natural state. “If you look at the Grand Canyon, and you looked at the Canyon Mine and the other uranium mines on the north side of the Grand Canyon, hundreds of these things have eroded naturally by the Colorado River over millions of years, hundreds of natural uranium deposit formations because the Grand Canyon cut through a zone of natural radioactive activity,” Chalmers said.

However, in a survey of 474 abandoned uranium mines on the Navajo Nation by the EPA, researchers have shown that 85 percent of those mines produced gamma radiation levels clocking in at twice the background level for the area. Furthermore, nearly half of the mines demonstrated radiation levels rising to 10 or even 25 times the background radiation.

Radiation warning sign in front of A&B No. 3 Mine

Throughout his speech, Chalmers reiterated that the ore being transporting is not as dangerous as some of the other materials traveling through the city like sulfuric acid that could dissolve your hands or the “immediate hazards” that could be present with chlorine gas or fuels. “Whereas uranium ore you would just literally shovel it up, scan it, you’d make sure you cleaned it up, but it is not an immediate hazard,” said Chalmers. “I think that’s one stigma with uranium mining that they don’t fully understand.”

In an area plagued by the various remnants and continuations of nuclear colonialism, from the Church Rock uranium mill spill, to the documented health effects of uranium mining on the Navajo Nation, to the desecration of sacred sites without permission of the affected indigenous nations, the crowd was unresponsive to Chalmers claims.

Councilman Jim McCarthy responded to Chalmers’ assertions. A former member of the Grand Canyon Historical Society, McCarthy once attended a meeting at the rim of the Grand Canyon, overlooking the Orphan Mine uranium mine. “I asked the man who was giving the presentation who used to be the manager of that mine and I asked if there were any health effects on the miners,” McCarthy said. “He told me that’s the sad part, almost everyone who worked there got cancer and is dead.” Studies support that anecdote. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health’s mortality study on uranium miners, which began in the 1950s and has been updated several times through 2000, causes of death among this population that were significantly above average included lung cancer, pneumoconiosis (a type of lung disease caused by dust), tuberculosis, emphysema, and work-related injuries.

Chalmers told the audience that he also had friends who died of lung cancer from uranium mining but said that the industry had learned a lot in the last 50 years to combat that. “So does that mean that no one gets cancer anymore from these mines?” asked Coral Evans, the mayor of Flagstaff.

Chalmers attempted to respond. “Well, I mean, when you look at cancer, this is something that always drives me crazy. They say you get cancer from uranium or smoking or whatever, and then they haul you in and give you radiation to get rid of it,” Chalmers said. “People get cancer from different things, and I don’t think people really know all the reasons that people get cancer like if you’re at high altitude at 7000 feet, you get more radiation at 7000 feet than 1000 feet or 2000 feet.” Chalmers continued to argue that even with all the research surrounding cancer, there are unanswered questions as to what causes it and many contributing factors.

While Chalmers used the idea of unknown factors to support uranium mining, Mayor Evans used it as the very reason to support the hauling ban. “I just feel like I need to say this because this is something I feel is weighing heavily on me,” said Evans. The mayor reminded the audience of the people affected by U.S. nuclear bomb tests outside of Vegas in Nevada throughout the 30s, 40s, and 50s. “My mom was one of the individuals who were downwind of that, and as a result of her being a downwinder she died of breast cancer.”

Before that, Evans said there wasn’t cancer in her family. Evans has now had breast cancer twice, and her daughter, 23, is being tested by doctors annually. “They think something might have happened with this whole downwind thing and now it might be in our genes,” she added. “While we have changed, grown, and do things differently now, future generations pay for what has happened to the generations that came before, so I just want to make sure that we all understand that.”

The mayor’s points made a case for caution, emphasizing the many unknowns surrounding how uranium could affect generations to come and urging this generation to take the proper precautions to avoid destroying the lives of those yet to come. McCarthy, who has a masters degree in environmental engineering, said that he has a background in exploring issues like this and understands that even though we have learned a lot, risk analysis in these industries can be complicated.

According to a press release by Haul No!, “Right before the resolution went to vote, Flagstaff Mayor Coral Evans shared, ‘I want to talk about the constitutionality and legality part of it. In his ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail,’ Dr. King writes about something he calls just and unjust laws. I would say that in this country, historically we have seen several laws over the course of time be changed or overturned because we, the people, have determined that they were unjust.’

“Mayor Evans challenged all council members to pass the resolution with a 7-0 vote. ‘The legacy of uranium mining in Northern Arizona is unjust. I believe that it has been clearly shown through the routes that this ore takes… [and] clearly shown through the level of cancer and cancer-related death experienced by the indigenous people in our region. We have Indigenous neighbors that have been fighting and asking for relief on this issue for decades, for generations. And they are asking us, as the largest city in Northern Arizona, to help them.’”

Havasupai Prayer Gathering: Indigenous Nations Unite Against Nuclear Colonialism

Havasupai Prayer Gathering: Indigenous Nations Unite Against Nuclear Colonialism

Featured image by Garet Bleir

     by Intercontinental Cry

At the Havasupai Prayer Gathering, Fydel Rising Sun, member of the Havasupai Tribe, sang of resisting uranium mining to the sound of his beating drum. It was 3 a.m., and the sacred fire crackled under the dark outline of Red Butte, a site of great ceremonial importance to the surrounding native nations nations beside the Grand Canyon. The sun soon crested the horizon, and color returned to the land, as well as sweltering heat. Green shrubs poked through the red dirt, their roots a stalwart defense against erosion and increasingly common dust storms, in this parched land being robbed of millions of gallons of clean water.

As explored in our previous pieces within the series, millions of gallons of clean water have been contaminated with uranium and arsenic, directly above an aquifer feeding waters such as those pictured. Moreover, Canyon Mine is accused by conservation organizations and surrounding indigenous nations of desecrating land, medicine, and water surrounding Red Butte: just six miles from the Grand Canyon and from land held sacred by the Havasupai Tribe.

The aqua-marine waters of Havasu Falls on the Havasupai Reservation.

The president of the mine’s company, Mark Chalmers, has denied that that the tribe holds these areas sacred. In response, a four day Havasupai Prayer Gathering, the first in eight years, invited other native nations to come together beneath Red Butte for ancestral ceremonies, inter-tribal gatherings, entertainment, direct action training, and speakers.

Well over 100 people were in attendance over the course of the four-day gathering, many camping out each night for the entirety of the event. Speakers delved into a variety of topics covering past and current illegal land grabs, religious and cultural oppression, spiritual guidance, and stories of resistance. All these narratives came together to now fight the Canyon Mine’s desecration of the land surrounding Red Butte. These are their stories:

Richard Watahomigie, descendant of the first Havasupai leader, spoke to the audience about how he was able to overcome the challenges in his early life and return to his roots to help to lead the Havasupai Tribe. At the event he said he wished he was able to tell this story to more people, but hopes for his words to be shared broadly to help inspire others as well. He is pictured in front of Red Butte:

When I was five I was taken from my family by the white man. They put me in a Mormon school. I wanted to go home and started getting myself in trouble. Eventually they got tired of me and told me I was going home. I was happy. I was going home. Instead they took me to a boarding school in White River, Arizona called Theodore Roosevelt. There I got mistreated by government workers at nine years old.

Some of my relatives and people from Supai went to school there too. I tried to listen and understand them, but could only understand a little. They laughed at me and made fun of me because I couldn’t talk Supai. When I was alone I practiced and tried hard to talk my language.

From then on I went to other schools, tried to learn the white man’s way. One time I heard a native man, Chief Dan George, make a speech. He said, ‘if you finish high school, you’re going to become a half breed.’ So I ran away. I traveled, hitchhiked. I was 14 or 15 years old and eventually made it back home. Then I started over, trying to speak my own language. I finally got it. I listened to the songs with the elders at the sweat lodges and circle dances and practiced them. Now I claim myself a full blood because I got back my roots.

 After getting a job to help my parents I started traveling around again. But every time I did, Supai kept calling me back. I went home and thereafter just sort of wandered around looking for a stable life. Eventually I found my wife. I quit all the bad things I did when I was young. It was hard to give up smoking, drinking, hard drugs. You might call me a junkie. That’s what I was and now I’m clean.

When I grew older I was nominated for office. I didn’t want to accept that; I wasn’t about that. I’m not a political person, but I said to myself, ‘okay I’ll just let it flow and see how it goes and see what the people think of me.’ My people voted me into office. And now I’m a member of the Havasupai Tribal Council. Now I have great admiration, love, respect for my people, my land, water, wildlife, plants, Mother Earth.”

Rex Tilousi, elder and former Chairman of the Havasupai, spoke to the Havasupai people in both the Havasupai–Hualapai language and English, encouraging the Havasupai to remember their history, continue their traditions, and continue their duty of protecting their lands:

“My great-great-grandfather asked to be buried on top of Havasu Falls. They called him Captain Borough. He got that name when the first trainload of tourists visited the Grand Canyon and saw him hiking up Bright Angel Trail with the harvest. They said, ‘look at that animal coming up that trail, look at that jackass coming up the trail, look at that borough coming up the trail.’

Later President Theodore Roosevelt stood on the canyon rim too. He wanted to make a national park and take it from those before him. Rangers say John Wesley Powell discovered this area, but native peoples were already there and regard the canyon as a place of emergence.

When Roosevelt came to our village, he gathered elders to sign papers even though they couldn’t read them. Then he said, ‘I’m taking your lands. Don’t go up to the rim anymore. No hunting or gathering here, no prayers, no sweat lodges. I don’t want you in the park.’

In 1919, they removed the peoples living there. The last Havasupai chased out was my great-great-grandfather, Borough. He refused to leave the home he loved and gave him life. But rangers went down the trail, stuck him on a mule, and forced him out. That same year he passed away and was buried at the top of Havasu Falls.

Years ago rangers asked me to work for the park. I said I needed to do prayer work before responding so spoke to my great-great-grandfather’s grave. That night I had a dream and his voice said, ‘find out why we were chased away.” I accepted the position.

The park gave me a gray and green uniform and that hat Smokey the bear wears. I found out why. They said they wanted to protect the canyon for everyone who wanted to see its wonders. But they aren’t protecting it. They are allowing this destruction.

We were given a responsibility to protect and preserve this land and water for those yet to come. We have a job to do. The ancient rock writing in our canyon tells us to protect this place. The canyon doesn’t belong to us. We belong to the canyon, to the earth, to the water. It created us and gave us life. We are fighting for our lives and for those who are yet to come.”

Photo: Garet Bleir

Krysta Manakaja, Miss Havasupai, spoke to IC regarding the sanctity of the area of Red Butte and the mission of the Havasupai people at the prayer gathering:

“I am standing here in front of you as an ambassador of the Havasupai, to protect my home land and the waters of the Grand Canyon. Red Butte behind me was our first home, our first land, this was where we first lived. There are a lot of our ancestors buried out here and we are here to protect them.”

In the late 70s, when the Havasupai first heard that the Canyon Mine was being developed upon land they hold sacred, it wasn’t the company who told them. Someone working in the nearby city of Tusayan noticed the development and contacted the tribe. According to Rex Tilousi, “Without letting us know, they had already scraped the ground, the sage, and underneath the dust they destroyed ancient grinding stones, baskets, the pottery work our people traded with other tribes, and even bones. They had scraped everything away getting that place ready for mining.”

Photo: Garet Bleir

Havasupai Medicine Woman, Dianna Baby Sue White Dove Uqualla, is a third generation spiritual traditionalist, former member of the Havasupai Tribal Council and former Vice- Chairwoman for the tribe:

“Things are simple, but in this world we made it chaotic. Take away that complication and just live and breath love and have faith. The land behind me of Red Butte is sacred land to our people. You step on this ground and you are being blessed, even if you are not doing ceremony or prayer.

“This land is testing each and every one of us to see if we’re meaning what we are doing here. When you speak, speak truth. We have made lying a norm in this world which is not right. We have to go back to truth, because that’s what is the healer. We have once been the little sheep and they pulled the wool over our eyes. But now we have seen through this wool to recognize what is happening to us. We the people have the ability to take down our president but we have to walk in a force of many and share the word of respect and dignity so that all of us and all our children can survive. Right now we are in a dark place. And we’re sitting here thinking that we cannot do anything, but it’s not true. Yes, we will have to stand in the front lines and give life or give some kind of hurt, but if you’re really in the place of saying, ‘yes I do want to protect my land, my people,’ then that’s the sacrifice we make without question.

“Before you begin your journey, question yourself and ask, ‘am I ready?’ Because it does get scary. Your heart is going to flutter. Your feet are going to chatter. Your hands are going to begin to tremble. That’s human. But you can overcome these things, because we have our mind and our mind is so powerful. More powerful than we know and we have all that to give. To give and acknowledge.”

Photo: Garet Bleir

Rex Tilousi, former Havasupai Chairman, also spoke about why it is so important to resist the developments of the areas they hold sacred:

“Water is going to be just as valuable as gold in the future and that is what is happening today. Arizona calls itself the Grand Canyon State. But what are they doing about the Grand Canyon? They are allowing this destruction.

“To those of us who live in the Canyon, our religious stories and our creations stories from our elders say that this is where we all came from. Black, white, red, green, yellow, doesn’t matter what color one is, we all originated inside of the Canyon. When I hear those stories of how humans came to be, I feel this that is our mother, our grandmother, this is where we all came from, inside our mother earth.

“That’s the reason why we are fighting. Fighting for a home that gave us life, is still giving us life, and is still protecting those that lived down below. Not only us, but the many visitors who come below the rims. The visitors who have been there, if they knew what was going on today, I am sure they would sign the petition that is going around to help stop uranium mining around the Canyon.

“Projects like the Canyon Mine and the casino and tramway they want to make to the bottom at the Grand Canyon with the Escalade Project serve to make more money for those that are developing these things. It is not the idea of the native people. This idea comes from the lawyers, the developers, and the people that are going to disturb this area. Drilling holes, pumping our waters, and pumping the springs that was created by these waters. We have been told many times, when you come to a spring, talk to it before you drink, thank it after you leave, do not bother the spring. Even though I may not be here to see the end of it, I will look down from behind the clouds and say I am very proud of my people.”

Members from the Havasupai Tribe, Navajo Nation, and Haul No take their message to the gates of the Canyon Mine, located just 6 miles south of the Grand Canyon on the site of the sacred Red Butte.

Klee Benally, volunteer with the indigenous-led activist group, Haul No and member of the Navajo Nation taught direct action trainings for the camp in preparation to resist the Canyon Mine:

“Two of my uncles worked at Canyon Mine back in the ‘80s. They helped lay concrete and build the headframe for the uranium mining shaft. Today I feel a great sense of responsibility to rectify their transgressions.”

Photo: Garet Bleir

Photo: Garet Bleir

Guardians of the Grand Canyon, a group of Havasupai dancers, tour Arizona and the world while bringing back a lost tradition to the Havasupai people. The group performed the Ram Dance at the prayer gathering and IC spoke with Richard Watahomigie, who reignited these once-lost traditions:

“My brother in law and I were out hunting one day and we came upon a trail of blood. We tracked it and found two bighorn sheep. They were slaughtered. Hidden underneath bushes. I took them back to the village, did the proper blessings and buried them. The bighorn sheep are sacred to the Havasupai. When we pass away we reincarnate into the bighorn and travel along the rim of the Grand Canyon, back and forth, guarding it. That’s why the ram dancers call themselves the Guardians of the Grand Canyon.

“I took the death of those two bighorns as a sign that we needed to recreate the Ram Dance, a forgotten tradition of the Havasupai practiced over 100 years ago. With the help of a friend, a former council member as well, we got together, made replicas out of the real bighorn, and figured out a way to recreate the dance in order to honor them once again.”

Photo: Garet Bleir

Ruth Havatone, member of the Havasupai Tribe, spoke to an audience regarding new ways of resistance to colonization through the legal system and how colonization has forced the tribe from an agrarian society to a tourist economy:

“Nowadays we can’t fight with arrows or guns, we have to educate our children and send them to college and law school so we can understand how to fight back with the white man and their language, their laws, and their regulations. It is very sad what is going on here. We want to stop the uranium mining and we want the public to recognize that we the Havasupai are here and the dangers of the uranium contamination. It’s not right.

“After the federal government took away most of our land and pushed us into the canyon, we don’t even know how to make money down there. We barely survive with the tourists. In winter we don’t have much money. No tourists buying our groceries or eating in our cafes, only us natives are there surviving on little money. But we survive.

“We are not used to the public view. The tourists don’t see some of us because we are shy of the white people that arrive to our village. Some of us, the older ones, we are watching but they don’t see us because we are hiding in the bushes or the canyon rocks, watching them walk by.”

Photo: Garet Bleir

Uqualla, a Havasupai Medicine Man and Spiritual Traditionalist, spoke throughout the four-day gathering about returning to listening to the earth and finding balance within one’s self. Uqualla also facilitates workshops and ceremonial life coaching sessions throughout the Southwest.

“Everyone that is birthed on this Mother Earth has dark and light, good and bad, masculine and feminine. Learn how to bring that into a magnificent balance. The Mother Earth stated at the beginning, ‘I will give you what it is that you ask for. Not what you ask for from the language or the voice, but what you put forth in your actions.’

“Everything about Mother Earth speaks in symbolism. Learn how to pull from the information given by the surroundings. The medicines of wind, the medicines of the water, the medicines of fire, the medicines of rock. The Mother Earth knows how to take care of itself. And it will take care of itself. It’s going to be the greatest teacher for all of us so go out to her daily and allow for yourself that connection in whatever way you wish that is comfortable for you do so. Even if it is just a step out there. That one moment of total blankness will allow for that infusion of Mother Earth to come through. Allow for yourself to make a connection with the Mother Earth and have her be a constant watcher, healer, teacher, and leader for you.

“We are the children of the Mother Earth and every single one of them walk and trash and abuse the earth beneath them. It’s a surface that gives us the ability to walk, talk, breath, sing, dance. And that is important for us to understand. Without that where would we be? We would not be.”

Garet Bleir is an investigative journalist working for Intercontinental Cry documenting human rights and environmental abuses surrounding uranium mining in the Grand Canyon region. To follow along with interviews and photos highlighting indigenous voices and to receive updates on his 12 part series for IC, follow him on Instagram or facebook.

This article is a part of #GrandCanyonFutures, an ongoing deep journalism series published by IC in partnership with Toward Freedom.

Unanswered Questions Loom Over Grand Canyon Mine

Unanswered Questions Loom Over Grand Canyon Mine

Featured image: Representatives from Haul No and the Havasupai Tribe march to the gates of the Canyon Mine which lay upon grounds sacred to many indigenous nations in the region. Photo: Garet Bleir

     by  / Intercontinental Cry

Any day now, Energy Fuels (EFR) will resume drilling for high-grade uranium ore at the Canyon Mine just six miles south of the Grand Canyon. The risks of the mine have never been fully investigated, but it doesn’t take much to see the potential consequences.

The Canyon Mine sits directly above the Redwall-Muav Aquifer in close proximity to the sacred site of Red Butte. This aquifer supports the Grand Canyon’s delicate ecosystem and provides the Havasupai Tribe with a steady supply of potable water that supports their livelihoods, their medicine and their cultural practices.

If the Redwall-Muav became too contaminated to drink, the Havasupai’s way of life would be diminished beyond measure. We’ve already caught a glimpse of how easily it could happen. Earlier this year, millions of gallons of clean water that sat above the aquifer fell into the depths of the Canyon Mine. According to data that EFR reported to the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) in its 2016 Annual Report, that water now contains dangerously high levels of uranium and arsenic.

To make matters worse, the ADEQ–the government agency that issued EFR’s water permits– doesn’t require monitoring of deep aquifers like the Redwall-Muav. Nor does it require remediation plans or bonding to prevent deep aquifer contamination.

Additionally, according to Fred Tillman, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) lead hydrologist investigating uranium mining impacts on water resources near the Grand Canyon, no one knows how the region’s groundwater flows. “Basic hydrology questions” still need answers, he said.

“We first have to study the potential impacts between these systems. We don’t know what the direction of the flow is or if there is recharge of the water between the mine and the canyon from elsewhere, because then their pumping might have no impact at all, but it’s really an unknown science question due to depth of the system and the lack of wells and observational data up there.”

“Does the perched water eventually go down and reach the regional aquifer and become part of that? We absolutely do not know that,” he added.

This is precisely what the Center for Biological Diversity, the Grand Canyon Trust and other conservation groups argue. “There is risk and you need to have a more stringent Aquifer Protection Permit, because we don’t know enough about this area,” Alicyn Gitlin, Program Manager of the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter, told IC.

The risk became all too clear when Energy Fuels drilled through the Coconino Perched Aquifer, which led to the mine shaft flooding, equipment breaking down, and millions of gallons of clean drinking water becoming contaminated.

Tillman, who took samples from the Canyon Mine shaft in June 2016 and sampled the new USGS Canyon Mine Observation Well in July 2017, told us that, “The water coming in at the Coconino level is or was fairly low in most trace elements including uranium… The Coconino water was originally in the single digits of parts per billion that they were reporting to ADEQ.”

After the water entered the shaft, the mixed solution was 18 times higher in uranium levels – 3 times the maximum safety standard for drinking water recommended by the EPA. The water also contained 30 times more arsenic and exceeded the standard for radium, according to Gitlin.

Millions of gallons of the contaminated water have now been hauled off site in trucks or evaporated in an already water-starved climate.

The flooded mine shaft and resulting offsite disposal of water initiated a robust debate among conservation groups, the company, and governmental organizations about whether or not this could have been anticipated and the legality of the company’s actions.

Energy Fuels and public affairs representatives of the Forest Service allege that the need to dispose contaminated water off site couldn’t be predicted due to climatic changes in the area. Jacqueline C. Banks, Public Affairs Officer for the Kaibab National Forest Service, told IC, “We had an extremely wet winter, with lots of precipitation and lower than normal evaporation, so to prevent overflow from the evaporation pond, Energy Fuels implemented that emergency plan,” said Banks.

However, even with the unpredictable nature of the wet winter, this would have been a breach of the 1986 Final Environmental Impact Statement for the Canyon Mine, which requires that “Holding pond(s) in the mine yard must be adequate to receive local runoff from a 100-year thunderstorm event, plus normal annual runoff and water that may be pumped from the mine. The volume of water in the pond(s) must be maintained at a level that will allow a reserve pond capacity to accommodate unforeseen and normally expected runoff events.”

Mark Chalmers, the President and COO of Energy Fuels and other company officials point toward the weather to help explain the flooded shaft. “This year was a very very wet year in Northern Arizona and we had more water than expected, so we hauled water to our mill to prevent our pond from overflowing,” Chalmers said.

However, there is no substantiated evidence from the USGS to support or refute this rationale. In fact, the current data available points away from any claims of climate driven water.

“EFR has put forth that possibility that there’s been a wet winter and more recent recharge of the aquifer,” Tillman observed. “We are still evaluating our sample results, and waiting for some more to come in (i.e., tritium results), but our first take on the carbon-14 result of 17.52 percent modern carbon is that there is at least some portion of quite old water down there. We’ll want to look at the tritium results to see if there is some recent water mixing as well, and then verify everything with another round of sampling (or two or three).”

Gitlin believes that other issues contributed to the flooded shaft, including a lack of scrutiny from ADEQ as well as the contents of the company’s Environmental Impact Statement and Plan of Operations that have remain unchanged since they were approved by the the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) in 1986.

The Sierra Club, Havasupai Tribe, Center for Biological Diversity, and the Grand Canyon Trust are in a pending lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service. They are arguing the legality of USFS’s decision to permit the Canyon Mine’s operation without updating the Environmental Impact Statement and Plan of Operations or completing the required formal tribal consultations with the Havasupai required for all Traditional Cultural Properties.

According to Gitlin, if this Environmental Impact Statement and Plan of Operations was updated, the possibility of the shaft flooding would have been exposed. “The fact is that when Energy Fuels drilled the supply well on site for the mine in the 1980s, at about a thousand feet down they hit a significant amount of water at the Coconino Aquifer,” she said.

Back then, Energy Fuels was experiencing a flow rate of about five gallons per minute. This is enough water for the company to realize the lens of water can yield a significant flow, she said. “But unfortunately, Energy Fuels and the Forest Service are acting like they had no idea. It’s really frustrating,” Gitlin said. She argues that a new EIS would have revealed the company was going to hit the water, but a lack of scrutiny from ADEQ allowed them to continue.

However Chalmers told us that the geology of the area was simply too unpredictable to know the amount of water the company would hit at the Coconino Aquifer and to his knowledge, the nearby City of Tusayan has never found a continuous aquifer at that level.

“It’s always a little bit of a wild card about how much water there is and how long it is and everything about that,” Chalmers said.

Gitlin argues that this is one more reason why the company is not ready to drill. She says more research still needs to be carried out, there needs to be more monitoring wells in the region, and a more stringent Aquifer Protection Permit (APP) needs to be in place.

Energy Fuels refuted the severity of the Sierra Club’s claims. “Yeah, we found some perched water in the ‘80s. Yeah it was noticed in some of the drilling that there was some perched water, and we found more perched water recently, but we do not believe that it is continuous,” said Chalmers. “The environmental documents actually expected that we would hit perched quantities, and that if we had water we would either evaporate it or that we would treat the water to manage it and that’s what we are doing.”

Despite Chalmers’ confidence, there are more questions than answers. In addition to the unverifiable claims of climate driven flooding and the lack of knowledge surrounding the region’s groundwater, no one knows the uranium ore body’s ability to contaminate the Redwall-Muav Aquifer and other local water bodies.

As far as most indigenous peoples in the region are concerned, the mining company’s actions are criminal.

“Not only as indigenous people, but white people, black people, all people, they don’t realize that [they’re] killing themselves in search of this mighty dollar that they’re digging out of ground,” commented Milton Tso, Cameron Chapter President of the Navajo Nation. “You shouldn’t need to be warning people about the risk of contamination in their water.”

Tso knows a thing or two about the risk of uranium mines polluting local land and water sources. The Navajo Nation is currently dealing with more than 500 abandoned uranium mines on their reservation.

Nearly a third of the reservation is now forced to haul water from unregulated wells and many have no choice but to live adjacent to these radioactive mining sites.

The Navajo Nations’ uranium legacy serves as a cautionary tale that fuels the Havasupai’s fight to prevent a similar fate on their land.

Garet Bleir is an investigative journalist working for Intercontinental Cry documenting human rights and environmental abuses surrounding uranium mining in the Grand Canyon region. To follow along with interviews and photos highlighting indigenous voices and to receive updates on his 12 part series for IC, follow him on Instagram or facebook.

This article is a part of #GrandCanyonFutures, an ongoing deep journalism series published by Intercontinental Cry in partnership with Toward Freedom.

Colorado River Dispatch #1: What Does the River Need?

Colorado River Dispatch #1: What Does the River Need?

Featured image by Michelle McCarron

Editor’s note: This is the latest installment from Will Falk as he follows the Colorado River from headwaters to delta, before heading to court to argue for the Colorado River to be recognized as having inherent rights. More details on the lawsuit are here. The index of dispatches is here.

     by Will Falk / Deep Green Resistance Southwest Coalition

When I agreed to serve as a “next friend” to the Colorado River in a first-ever federal lawsuit seeking personhood and rights of nature for the river, I agreed to represent the river’s interests in court. On a general level, it’s not difficult to conceptualize the Colorado River’s interests: pollution kills the river’s inhabitants, climate change threatens the snowpack that provides much of the river’s water, and dams prevent the river from flowing to the sea in the Gulf of California.

We seek personhood for the Colorado River, however, and this entails personal relationship with her. Water is one of Life’s first vernaculars and the Colorado River speaks an ancient dialect. Snowpack murmurs in the melting sun. Rare desert rain runs off willow branches to ring across lazy pools. Streams running over dappled stones sing treble while distant falls take the bass.

Personal relationship requires that you learn who the other is. Our first day in court is scheduled for Tuesday, November 14, at 10 AM [you’re invited to attend]. So, I will spend the next few weeks leading up to the court date traveling with the river, sleeping on her banks, and listening. I will ask the Colorado River who she is, and then, if she’ll tell me, I’ll ask her what she needs.

When I arrive at the United States District Court in Denver, I hope to bring the Colorado River’s answer.

(I’ll post notes from the road. And, I’m excited to be meeting up with the brilliant photographer Michelle McCarron soon.)

Desecrating Medicine, Contaminating Water, Defiling Sacred Land

Desecrating Medicine, Contaminating Water, Defiling Sacred Land

Featured image: Red Butte. Located just 6 miles from the south rim of the Grand Canyon, this sacred site is in danger because of the Canyon uranium mine that operates adjacent. Photo Garet Bleir

     by  / Intercontinental Cry

More than five million people visit the Grand Canyon each year. It’s one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations, yet the public knows next to nothing about the indigenous nation living on its floor.

Geography has a lot to do with it: the territory of the Havasupai Tribe is only accessible by helicopter–or, for those more daring, through an arduous 10-mile walk to the canyon’s floor. But it’s also by choice: even though the Havasupai now survive on tourism, they don’t make most of their knowledge and customs available to the public.

Unfortunately, that isolation has failed to protect them from the threat of uranium mining. According to officials in the Sierra Club and USGS, the Canyon Mine has already contaminated millions of gallons of clean drinking water beneath the tribe’s sacred site of Red Butte and directly above the aquifer that feeds the tribe’s main source of water.

The uranium mine represents a major threat to the tribe’s cultural practices and the traditional  ecological medicine knowledge held by the nation’s medicine people.

Historically, Havasupai medicine people served as an advisory council to the chief. “Any decisions that affected the entire tribe were sent through the medicine people for spiritual input before decisions were made,” Uqualla, a Havasupai medicine man and spiritual traditionalist, told IC. “There is no longer direct guidance over political decisions, but there is still a constant flow of spirituality held by individuals, which is reinforced, reignited, rejuvenated, and re-divined by a source.”

Uqualla, a Havasupai Medicine Man and Spiritual Traditionalist, stands in front of Red Butte. Photo Garet Bleir

Medicine people continue to serve as emissaries for the Mother Earth in their practices today, Uqualla said. The tribe seeks to protect the specifics of Havasupai medicinal collections and spiritual practices from the public to avoid misunderstandings and potential dangers that come from incorrect replication by non-spiritual practitioners. Unlike Western medical traditions, the Havasupai’s spiritual medicine practices do not solely  focus on applying generic  treatments for anyone that suffers from a specific ailment. Rather, in spiritual medicine, the individual “patient” informs these practices and use of medicines.

For example, juniper berries might be considered good for urinary tract infections (UTI’s), kidney stones, and joint pain; the sap of pinon pines can be effective for coughs and sore throats or used externally for wounds, and sage can be used to help with digestion problems, reduction of over-perspiration, depression and memory loss. While the Havasupai recognize these facts, they believe that these medicines also interplay with the individual.

“There is an alchemy with the preparations of medicines,” Uqualla explained. “The alchemy is inclusive of the person in ailment. The collection and preparation of plants is directly connected to the person being healed. It is dependent on the patient’s openness and beliefs to what is coming in during the process. So, the key for spiritual medicine is that it come from a pure place, a pure collection method, and a pure intention.”

Havasupai horse grazing beneath Wigleeva, a sacred sandstone rock formation overlooking Supai village in the Havasupai Reservation. Photo: Garet Bleir

In sharing this wisdom, Uqualla hopes to benefit the broader, non-indigenous or non-spiritual population and to communicate how these lands continue to serve the indigenous peoples in the area.

Throughout his practices, Uqualla uses a variety of sage, juniper and pinon pine, as well as berries, acorns, talons, bones, feathers, cones, rocks, and plants that are found in the region of Red Butte, while incorporating the essence of these objects and other elements to bring strength to the healing process, he explained.

In Havasupai culture, the desire to safeguard stories and practices is also born from a concern that their practices will be appropriated and applied in an inappropriate manner. “When it comes to sharing information, you want to share elements that will bring clarity, illumination, healing, and well-being for people,” Uqualla said. “Because our practices are very individualized, it comes with risk when a major non-indigenous or non-spiritual demographic sees or reads something and [tries] to replicate, because they are likely to make an incorrect interpretation of it.”

Instead, Uqualla urges those searching for this kind of healing to locate an expert. “Every place in the Mother Earth has a medicine people, and it is important for those looking to benefit from these practices to be able to recognize them.”

Another reason the Havasupai  guard their sacred places and practices is due to the greed of those who appropriate their culture.

The Havasupai have experienced their fair share, like most other Native American nations. For instance, the Havasupai now only have access to “traditional use sites”after being forced at gunpoint from their traditional grounds within the Grand Canyon National Park. In a broader context, Indigenous Peoples have been repeatedly subjected to acts of “biopiracy” at the hands of  pharmaceutical companies,  biotechnology firms and even universities.

Indian Gardens, Grand Canyon National Park. This land was a traditional area for farming and medicine collection until the Havasupai were forced out, twenty years after the Grand Canyon was declared a national monument. Photo: Garet Bleir

“We have found the only way we can protect a thing that we do not want disturbed is by being very, very silent,” said Rex Tilousi, former Havasupai Chairman. “Not speaking about that painting, that rock, what is behind that rock, because we know what is going to happen to these things if we talk about them. They are going to be destroyed.”Red Butte serves as a critical example of this appropriation, given that this  unique and sacred space in Grand Canyon’s biocultural landscape, is now occupied by a uranium mine.

Owned by Energy Fuels, the Canyon Mine has already contaminated millions of gallons of once clean drinking water beneath the grounds surrounding Red Butte. Now, this contaminated water is  being sprayed into the air, trickling into the nearby forest, according to the president of the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter, Alicyn Gitlin. All of this is occurring upon traditional and current medicinal collection sites within the sacred land of Red Butte.

The destruction of this land has a history that dates to the late ‘70s, when the Canyon Mine was first being developed by Energy Fuels Resources (EFR). “Without letting us know, EFR had already scraped the ground, the sage, and underneath the dust they destroyed ancient grinding stones, baskets, the pottery work our people traded with other tribes, and even bones,” said Tilousi. “They had scraped away everything getting that place ready for mining.”

After being accused of desecrating sacred land and failing to communicate with the Havasupai before the company started working, EFR denied the sacred nature of the area.

Some 30 years later, Mark Chalmers, the President and COO of EFR, stands behind his company’s claim. When IC interviewed Chalmers last month he commented,

“You know it’s interesting…I built the mine in the ‘80s, and it was interesting because the Red Butte was never brought up as a cultural site back when they built it, but now it has emerged as a cultural site.”

Chalmers said he spoke with a local rancher who ran cattle in the area for 20 or 30 years.  “He’s the one who said it.“And I’m not saying this to be derogatory against the Havasupais, because I do respect the Havasupais, but he had never seen Havasupai in that ground until the mine was approved.” [sic]

Chalmers went on to say  that he had given some of the Havasupai their first rides to the Canyon Mine, because they had never seen it before. “I’m not saying that some Havasupais wouldn’t consider Red Butte sacred, but it received very little or no attention that I knew of.” [sic]

The Canyon uranium mine. Photo: Garet Bleir

Whether he was aware of it or not, Chalmers’ comment echoes back to a time when  the legal doctrine of terra nullius became a popular tool to justify territorial conquest.

The doctrine, which eventually became international law, establishes that any land can be legally obtained if it is found to be unused or unoccupied. The doctrine has been used extensively by governments and companies seeking  to take ownership of indigenous lands.

Chalmers’ comment also fails to acknowledge historical transgressions against the tribe. The Havasupai used to have easy access to Red Butte, but that changed when the Havasupai were forcibly removed to make way for the Grand Canyon National Park. Now, they must take a three-hour drive from their reservation to Red Butte…and that’s after a helicopter ride or 10-mile hike out of the canyon.

Regardless of outsider’s interpretations of their own cultural practices, the Havasupai maintain their spiritual connection to Red Butte.

“People complain that we have no documentation of being in the [area], and say such things like, ‘we have never seen them here,’ Uqualla observed. “But animals and plants are still a very profound part of the survival of the Havasupai people and we have been constantly utilizing these lands over generations.”

Due to the way that these collections take place, by one medicine man or woman and at various times of day or night, it is understandable why the rancher would not have noticed any Havasupai.

“Within our tradition and spirituality, these gatherings are not a show of being there to collect in grand ceremony,” Uqualla explained. “It is being there in those private moments to go in and have to communicate with Mother Earth to have permission to take, permission to use, permission to be able to bring in what it is meant for. The whole Grand Canyon rim is a giant apothecary of medicine and this is known by every spiritual group that is in the Colorado River Plateau region.”

The Havasupai still go into the Red Butte and Canyon Mine area too. “Individual medicine entities go out and collect what is needed at times when it is intimate for the Mother Earth and the harvester. This is done in such a subtle way that only an appropriate amount is taken. They wouldn’t see a whole field leveled or harvested,” Uqualla said.

The Canyon Mine could change everything. Even if contaminated water from the mine is somehow unable to make it into the deeper aquifer, several new studies have demonstrated that the mine can still have a negative ecological impact on local plant and animal life.

Medicine people have been in constant concern for the Mother Earth. They bring healing to her, which will bring healing to the people she watches over, Uqualla continued. But, according to many members of the tribe, these collections and practices are now in danger. “How can we get there? If we do get there, do we need special new ceremony? How can we be sure that our sacred spring water isn’t poisoned?”

Havasu Falls on the Havasupai Reservation. Areas such as these are fed by the aquifer directly beneath the Canyon Mine. Photo: Garet Bleir

Uqualla also told us that the Havasupai aren’t the only Native American tribe affected by the mine. The grounds in question are also sacred gathering lands for the Navajo Nation, the Hopi Nation, the Hualapai, and other tribes on the Colorado River Plateau.

He maintains that, in the future, medicine people will have to be even more discerning as to what is collected and when it is collected. They will also have to consider alternate preparations and other options to eradicate any negative effects the mine might have on medicine in the area.

Looking toward the future, Uqualla left us with this final thought:

“Everyone that is birthed on this mother earth has dark and light, good and bad, masculine and feminine. Learn how to bring that into a magnificent balance. The Mother Earth stated at the beginning, ‘I will give you what it is that you ask for. Not what you ask for from the language or the voice, but what you put forth in your actions.’

“Everything about Mother Earth speaks in symbolism. Learn how to pull from the information given by the surroundings. The medicines of wind, the medicines of the water, the medicines of fire, the medicines of rock. The Mother Earth knows how to take care of itself. And it will take care of itself. It’s going to be the greatest teacher for all of us so go out to her daily and allow for yourself that connection in whatever way you wish that is comfortable for you do so. Even if it is just a step out there. That one moment of total blankness will allow for that infusion of Mother Earth to come through. Allow for yourself to make a connection with the Mother Earth and have her be a constant watcher, healer, teacher, and leader for you.

“We are the children of the Mother Earth and every single one of them walk and trash and abuse the earth beneath them. It’s a surface that gives us the ability to walk, talk, breath, sing, dance. And that is important for us to understand. Without that where would we be? We would not be.”