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Renewed uranium mining is an unconscionable threat to the Grand Canyon

The Grand Canyon | Sun-Times/Thomas Frisbie

The spectacular and majestic Grand Canyon, eons in the making, needs our help. Some Republican members of Congress want President Donald Trump to overturn a ban on new uranium mining nearby, along with other conservation measures. We need to urge Congress to protect this national jewel.

Some six million people arrive each year to view the vast, multi-hued and intricate canyon, though most don’t venture far from the rim. For them, it’s an inspiring and breath-taking sight. But hardy trekkers who explore remote trails might see something else: signs warning them they are entering an area of the canyon tainted by radioactivity spewed years ago from uranium mines. National Geographic reports uranium leaching from old mines has rendered 15 springs and five wells inside the canyon unsafe to drink. We don’t need more of that.

OPINION

Uranium pollution is no way to treat an immense and ancient panorama of stunningly varied rock that has been called one of the seven wonders of the natural world. Recently, I had an opportunity to backpack with intrepid family members from the rim to the bottom and camp along Bright Angel Creek, near where it flows into the Colorado River. The ever-changing vista along the rocky trails was magnificent. Unafraid mule deer browsed just a few feet from us. A rare condor flew overhead. Bold rock squirrels waited for a chance to gnaw and rummage through any backpacks absent-mindedly left on the ground.

As a Midwesterner born in Chicago, I was unprepared for the canyon’s immense scale and its overpowering beauty. Occasional mule trains were its idea of modernity. I understood why, during a 1903 visit to the canyon, Theodore Roosevelt said, “Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it.”

The Colorado River flowing through the Grand Canyon. |  Sun-Times/Thomas Frisbie

Just as the canyon’s Colorado River twists and turns, so does politics. We now have a president who last year ordered federal agencies to review anything that could interfere with domestic energy production. In response, the Forest Service in November recommended reopening land near the Grand Canyon for uranium mining. In March, groups representing the mining industry asked the U.S. Supreme Court to lift the ban on new uranium mining on public land bordering the Grand Canyon National Park.

Uranium mining is extremely risky for the environment. Mining releases radioactive dust into the air and contaminates the land and water with radioactive and toxic substances.

“Uranium mining has left a toxic trail across the West — including at the Grand
Canyon itself,” the environmental group Environment America wrote in its April report update, “Grand Canyon at Risk: Uranium Mining Threatens a National Treasure.”

The waste rock and dirt left behind can remain radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years and also contain toxic chemicals such as arsenic that can contaminate the surrounding environment and make the mines themselves permanently hazardous, the report says.

Steve Blackledge, Environment America’s conservation program director, says, “Some places are too majestic, too important to ruin. At a time of energy abundance and the remarkable growth of clean renewables, messing with the Grand Canyon to turn on a few more light bulbs is beyond absurd.”

It’s not just the Grand Canyon that’s at risk. This month, members of the conservation group Save the Boundary Waters bicycled through the Chicago area with a canoe in tow to warn of potential damage to the pristine Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota. The Trump administration has moved to renew leases for copper and nickel mining on the area’s border, which would benefit a Chilean mining firm owned by the family of a billionaire who rents a Washington, D.C., home to Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner. Save the Boundary Waters says contaminants from the mines would flow directly into the heart of the Boundary Waters and pollute the wilderness for at least 500 years.

Donald Trump never will understand the value of the Grand Canyon or the Boundary Waters. Nor does he lose much sleep worrying about preserving these places for future generations.

But we do. Our job is to push our representatives to stop these assaults on our national gems.

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