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Grijalva: Uranium industry hops on bandwagon taking advantage of Ukraine crisis

This Thursday, March 31, at 10 a.m., the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will hold a hearing examining the country's supply of critical minerals. The hearing should be an opportunity for Congress to determine how we can safely and sustainably secure minerals needed to power American's transition to a clean energy economy. At top of mind should be reform of our antiquated mining law, which is more than 150 years-old. .

So, you might be surprised to see that one of the invited witnesses comes from the Uranium Producers of America—a trade organization for the uranium industry. As trade representatives are apt to do, we fully expect them to use this hearing and the ongoing crisis in Ukraine to plead for more taxpayer-funded subsidies, so they can ramp up production quickly and cheaply.

This may sound like an opportunistic ploy to use a brutal war as a profit-making scheme. Make no mistake, it is.

As chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, I've already set the record straight on the oil and gas industry's pleas for an all-out drilling bonanza. Before we let the uranium industry pull us into an unchecked mining spree, I think it's worth remembering that this has been their goal long before Vladimir Putin launched his deadly attack. .

For years, the uranium industry has stoked misleading fears about supply threats and ballooning demands. They've begged the federal government to establish import quotas, a national reserve, and to fast-track domestic mining in the name of national security. .

But their cries are disingenuous; the majority of our uranium already comes from domestic mining or from our allies. National security officials and even power plant operators have weighed in, affirming that our uranium needs can be met safely and at lower cost by purchasing from the international market. .

What the industry's long sought-after price controls and taxpayer subsidies would do, however, is allow currently unprofitable operations to come back online. At the top of industry executives' wish list would undoubtedly be the Grand Canyon region, an area that has been under constant threat of uranium mining for decades. In 2011 alone, uranium speculators filed more than 10,000 mining claims in and near the Grand Canyon.  .

The benefits of mining in the area are minimal—the Grand Canyon region contains less than one percent of known U.S. uranium reserves—but the risks to the environment and people living in the area are astronomical. The Grand Canyon region is home to some our most unique scenic and natural resources. It is also the ancestral homeland of the numerous tribal communities, including the Havasupai Tribe, also known as the Guardians of the Grand Canyon.

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One of the uranium mines—the Canyon mine—sits above the sole drinking water source of the Havasupai tribe and risks impacting the Colorado River, on which 40 million Americans, from Las Vegas to Los Angeles, rely for their drinking water. The mine has already pierced a major aquifer, leading to the mining company having to pump water out of the mine shaft and spray the uranium-contaminated water into a nearby national forest.     .

The mines in the Grand Canyon region are also some of the most expensive mines in the country to operate. Most of them end up sitting shuttered, employing virtually no one. All throughout northern Arizona, abandoned mine and mill sites litter the landscape—there are more than 1,000 on Navajo Nation alone. Fully half of those mines were abandoned by the companies who operated them, leaving taxpayers on the hook for billons in cleanup costs. Besides being an eyesore, abandoned mines leach toxins and contaminate the groundwater. A 2016 study found that 27 percent of Navajo participants had elevated uranium levels.

Make no mistake, uranium mining's toxic, irresponsible legacy in the Grand Canyon is just one example of a much bigger, uglier picture. But while we are rightly focused on Russian aggression and domestic needs, the uranium industry is hoping to pull the wool over our eyes so we can't see it.  .

Elected officials, including President Biden and Sens. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) need to stand up to these uranium industry falsehoods. We can meet our energy needs without relying on Russia, and we don't need to put tribal communities, clean water, or the Grand Canyon in harm's way to do it. Let's not let the uranium industry convince us otherwise.

U.S. Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva represents Arizona’s 3rd Congressional District.

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Jake Eldridge/Cronkite News

The Canyon Mine, about 15 miles south of the Grand Canyon.

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