Entirely dependent upon and intimately connected to their land and its natural resources, the Havasupai Tribe is threatened by uranium mining around the Grand Canyon.
For over 1,000 years the Supai village, located eight miles below the Grand Canyon in Arizona, has been home to the Havasupai Tribe which administers the land. Havasupai means people of the blue-green waters. Their reservation was established in 1880 and substantially enlarged in 1975 . Before Grand Canyon National Park was established in 1919, the Havasupai lived throughout the canyon in bands. At that time, the Tribe was forcibly displaced and restricted to 518 acres, five miles wide and 12 miles long in a side canyon. After years of court battles, the Havasupai were returned a portion of their former land in 1975 . It is only accessible by foot and is known by tourists for the spectacular waterfalls and remoteness. Each year more than 20,000 visitors travel to Supai to visit the beautiful Havasu Falls. The income generated from this tourism is what sustains the tribe, which has a high poverty rate of more than 36 percent and only four revenue-generating enterprises - all in the tourism industry .
The Havasupai Tribe is currently threatened by the development of uranium mines upstream from the village. There is strong concern among the Tribe about groundwater contamination from uranium mining, and, with the support from surrounding tribes, the Havasupai remain guardians of the Grand Canyon as a leading advocate for banning uranium mining and the possibility of establishing future claims in their traditional homeland taken from them in 1919 when the National Park was created .
The first time the Tribe asserted its water rights was in December 2016 when they filed a lawsuit seeking to halt groundwater withdrawals near the Grand Canyon’s South Rim. They were prompted to do this because of future plans for development. While not against development in and of itself, the tribe was not in support of development that threatened their water source that feeds the natural springs and falls which not only provides for their water needs but also attracts thousands of tourists every year, sustaining the tribe’s economy. According to the lawsuit, those canyon water sources are part of the tribe’s “aboriginal and federal reserved water rights” and withdrawals from the aquifer by the numerous well owners named as defendants is considered to be an “unlawful interference with the Tribe’s water rights that threatens irreparable harm to the Tribe’s livelihood and cultural interests” .
In 2012, the Obama administration imposed a 20-year ban on uranium mining to research its potential effects on the Grand Canyon’s ecosystem and this ban was reaffirmed by the 9th District Court in December 2017 . Prior to that, two mining lobbying groups filed appeals challenging a ruling by an Arizona U.S. District Court Judge that upheld the ban on new uranium mining claims. Tribal members and conservation groups promptly fought these appeals . However, in October 2017, the U.S. Forest Service recommended to President Donald Trump that he reverse the ban.
Meanwhile, uranium mining company Energy Fuels, Inc has been fighting to continue its operations and continued plans for mine development in the South Rim. The company owns a uranium mine on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon that filled with more than 3 million gallons of contaminated water after the mine ceased operations in the early 1990s. Prior to the 2012 ban, the company had already completed preliminary work on Canyon Mine, which sits less than 10 miles south of the South Rim entrance of the National Park, and has claimed “grandfather” status to continue work .
Energy Fuels officials deny the Canyon Mine operation will harm the tribe or the environment. The vice president of marketing and corporate development for Energy Fuels asserts with 99.999 percent certainty that the groundwater will not be impacted by Canyon Mine and that the company is in compliance with all state and federal government regulations . According to the EPA, there are currently no approved tribal water quality standards for the Havasupai Tribe (https://www.epa.gov/wqs-tech/water-quality-standards-regulations-havasupai-tribe). Additionally, groundwater monitoring is done sporadically and at the discretion of the state .
The tribe sees the mine as a threat to their future, their cultural identity, and their entire way of life. The Havasupai are known to be the “Keepers of the Canyon” in that the Creator gave them the Grand Canyon to preserve it. They believe that without their persistence and determination, the canyon will be overexploited like Niagara Falls and other scenic wonders in the United States .
Their concerns are based on historic legacy in the Four Corners Region where unregulated uranium mining resulted in increased lung cancer deaths, contaminated drinking water, increased chance of kidney failure and many other health impacts in the Navajo Nation . The Canyon Mine has the potential to yield 2 million pounds of uranium which could fuel Arizona for an entire year . But at what cost? Organizers around this issue want more than words and assurances that there is no risk to the tribe and their livelihood.
This is why they asked for the twenty year moratorium on the development of uranium mines in the first place, because it would give researchers and mining companies enough time to know how current mining operations can impact the land and the people who rely on it .