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The Washington Independent

McCain Turns Back on Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon National Park, Ariz.—Arizona Sen. John McCain, the presumed GOP nominee, has repeatedly declared himself a disciple of Theodore Roosevelt,

Elisa Mueller
Last updated: Jul 31, 2020 | Jul 22, 2008

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona (James Gordon, Flickr)
Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona (James Gordon, Flickr)

Grand Canyon National Park, Ariz.—Arizona Sen. John McCain, the presumed GOP nominee, has repeatedly declared himself a disciple of Theodore Roosevelt, the Republican president who first brought an environmental ethic to the nation and, as part of his conservation effort, set aside the Grand Canyon as a national monument 100 years ago.

McCain has regularly prodded his fellow Republicans to embrace Roosevelt’s belief that the nation must leave to posterity a land in better condition than it was found. McCain reiterated his Roosevelt stripes in a recent interview with The New York Times, just as he had loudly declared it during his first bid for the presidency in 2000. “Theodore Roosevelt was my hero and is to this day,“ McCain said during a 2000 GOP presidential debate. “He was responsible for the National Parks system, the crown jewels of America. They are $6-billion under-funded, they’re under enormous strain.”

Illustration by:Matt Mahurin
Illustration by:Matt Mahurin

Nowhere is the “enormous strain” on the national parks greater than here at the nation’s most famous park. Ironically, at a time of the Grand Canyon National Park’s greatest need for a latter-day Roosevelt to ride to the rescue, McCain is nowhere to be found.

There has been a recent dramatic increase in mining claims on uranium-rich federal lands adjacent to the park. And there is now growing concern that radioactive mining waste could contaminate the park and also seep into the Colorado River, which provides drinking water to more than 25 million people. While out on the hustings, McCain has been pushing his plan to build more than 100 nuclear power plants over the next 50 years, as one possible answer to U.S. dependency on foreign oil. So, it appears that, rather than trying to forge a nuclear energy policy that also protects the park and the river, McCain has opted to vanish from the controversy now raging in his home state.

In the one known instance where McCain has been directly involved with state uranium mining issues, he did little more than listen to complaints from the Navajo Nation. The group’s representatives were in Washington last year and wanted his help in cleaning up a Cold War-era radioactive waste site. But the Navajo Nation says the senator did not respond to their request. It was only after Oversight Committee Chairman Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) held a hearing in October that a comprehensive clean-up plan for the reservation was prepared. A series in The Los Angeles Times, “Blighted Homeland,” had spurred Waxman’s investigation.

For more than six months, McCain has refused to meet with elected officials, Indian leaders, concerned environmentalists and other stakeholders trying to develop a plan to protect the park and the Colorado River from a second uranium boom that could leave the area again exposed to potentially dangerous byproducts — even as radioactive debris from the 1950s and ’60s remains untreated. In fact, the usually politically cautious municipal water utilities in Nevada and Southern California are also now urging a careful approach to new uranium mining that could pollute the river.

“McCain has an historic record of caring about the Grand Canyon,” said Don Hancock, director of nuclear waste programs for the Southwest Research and Information Center, an Albuquerque environmental group, “but he’s been absent about this discussion about uranium development around the Grand Canyon,”

A Roosevelt Republican Turns

Early in his Congressional career, McCain pushed through legislation restricting aircraft flights in the Grand Canyon to keep the natural quiet. In what he calls one of his proudest achievements, McCain joined the late Arizona Democratic Rep. Morris K. Udall to set aside 1.4 million acres of Arizona desert as wilderness. But McCain’s claim to Roosevelt-style environmentalism has been badly bruised by his silence on uranium mining near the park and on the Navajo Nation.

“McCain gave us hope that he might be a Teddy Roosevelt type of Republican,” said Roger Clark, air and water director for The Grand Canyon Trust, a Flagstaff, Ariz., environmental group. “Since the beginning of his run for president, including 2000, that has kind of crumbled.”

The Grand Canyon National Park has already experienced uranium mining’s toxic byproducts from the abandoned Orphan Mine on the canyon’s south rim, three miles from the celebrated El Tovar Hotel. (See Sidebar) Nearly 40 years after the Orphan Mine closed, two major defense contractors that employ lobbyists with close ties to McCain, are refusing to cooperate with the National Park Service to clean up the mine. Meanwhile, the Orphan Mine, which has been declared a Superfund site, is leaching radioactive waste into a creek that feeds the Colorado River.

McCain’s Senate office and also his campaign staff did not return several phone calls and emails with a list of questions about uranium mining near the park and the clean up of the Orphan Mine. McCain’s silence on the issue is regarded as a disappointment to many who cite him as a defender of the environment in general, and the Grand Canyon in particular.

For example, McCain’s support is considered necessary to pass The Grand Canyon Watersheds Protection Act. This bill, introduced last March by Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), permanently withdraws 1 million acres of U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management holdings adjacent to the park from mineral development. The land includes some of the highest-grade uranium deposits in the U.S.

“The bill is not going anywhere without McCain’s support,” said Clark, who has repeatedly tried to meet with McCain or his staff to discuss the bill, only to be rebuffed.

Uranium Rush

The United States has been moving toward resumption of construction of nuclear plants just as other nations, including India and China, are expanding their own nuclear-power industry. Rising demand for uranium triggered a rapid escalation in prices from $7 a pound in 2003 to a peak of $136 in June 2007 before plunging this year to around $60. The price spike renewed interest in developing the high-grade uranium sites near the Grand Canyon.

More than 10,000 mining claims have been filed, most within the last five years, to explore the sparsely inhabited lands north and south of the Grand Canyon. Approximately 1,100 of the claims are with five miles of the park. There are no operating uranium mines in Arizona, though there are three closed mines north of the canyon and one south of the park that operators say may be brought back into production. While only a handful of mining claims are ever developed into mines, the recent surge in activity led Grijalva to hold a Congressional field hearing last March in Flagstaff.

Mining claims on Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management property adjacent to the Grand Canyon are administered by the BLM, a sister agency of the National Park Service in the Interior Dept. The two agencies are at loggerheads over uranium mining near the park. The BLM has taken a position that renewed uranium mining can be safely conducted under the laws already in place, while Grand Canyon park officials are critical of mining near the canyon.

Rody Cox, a BLM geologist monitoring mining claims on the Arizona Strip that stretches across central and northwest Arizona between the Grand Canyon and Utah, does not share the anxiety that has gripped many others over the prospect of renewed uranium mining. “In my opinion,” Cox said, “these mines have very little potential for affecting the other resources out there like water or anything else.”

But Grand Canyon National Park Superintendent Steve Martin would like to see uranium mining stopped before it starts. “There should be some places that you just don’t mine,” Martin said, when asked to comment about Grijalva’s bill. “Uranium is a special concern because it is both a toxic heavy metal and source of radiation.”

Missing in Action

For more than six months McCain has ducked the latest uranium mining controversy that has reverberated from Indian country, to county government, to Arizona’s governor, to utility officials in Southern California, to the halls of Congress.

The political uproar began in December when the Forest Service granted a British mining company a permit to begin exploratory drilling on seven uranium claims less than two miles from the park’s boundary near the main entrance on the south rim. The Forest Service waived a requirement that the company, VANE Minerals, complete a detailed analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act.

The Forest Service decision to bypass environmental regulations was widely condemned in Arizona. The Coconino County Board of Supervisors in February passed a resolution opposing uranium development on federal lands within the vast county that includes areas north and south of the Grand Canyon. The board asked the Arizona Congressional delegation to intervene.

In early March, Gov. Janet Napolitano, a Democrat, got involved. She asked Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne and Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer to withdraw from mineral development the lands cited by Coconino County. Napolitano’s letter was also sent to the entire Arizona delegation, including McCain. A Napolitano spokeswoman said McCain’s staff has not responded.

Two major water providers also weighed into the fray. The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and the Southern Nevada Water Authority expressed concerns to Kempthorne about possible radioactive pollution in the Colorado River. “If adequate controls are not in place…mining activities could have the potential of contaminating drinking water sources,” Jeffery Kightlinger, general manager for MWDSC, wrote in his Mar. 25 letter to the interior secretary.

The debate escalated in April, when a federal court judge issued an injunction to stop VANE from exploration. The court ruled the Forest Service might have violated the law by issuing an exclusion.

Meanwhile, with no indication that McCain or fellow Arizona Republican Sen. Jon Kyl would introduce a companion to his bill in the Senate, Grijalva turned to a rarely used maneuver in an attempt to temporarily withdraw the federal lands from mineral exploration. In June, the House Natural Resources Committee voted 20 to 2 to adopt an emergency measure ordering the Interior Dept. to withdraw the federal lands from mining for up to three years. The resolution enraged Republicans, who stormed out of the committee meeting and boycotted the vote.

“We cannot wait while uranium claims continue to be filed and the Bush administration continues to use the exclusionary clause to allow uranium mining exploration and eventual mining operations [on] the public lands in close proximity to the Grand Canyon National Park,” Grijalva said on passing the resolution.

It’s uncertain whether the resolution of one Congressional committee can force the executive branch to act. The administration has indicated it may challenge the constitutionality of the resolution. Chris Paolino, an Interior spokesman, said there has been “no withdrawal” of the federal lands from mining, and that Interior is “reviewing the resolution and will make a determination on how to proceed.”

The next president will have the power to order Interior to comply with the House resolution or move forward with uranium mining that could lead to the industrialization of lands adjacent to the Grand Canyon National Park.

Indian Neglect

Perhaps nowhere is distrust of uranium mining companies greater than on the Navajo Nation. The last uranium rush left a legacy of radioactive pollution, death and cancer. There are at least 520 abandoned uranium mines waiting to be assessed and then cleaned up.

Despite the lasting environmental issues, neither McCain, nor the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, where he is the ranking Republican, has taken significant steps to address the widespread pollution scattered across the nation’s largest Indian tribe, said Stephen Etsitty, executive director for the Navajo Environmental Protection Agency.

From 1944 to 1986, nearly 4 million tons of uranium ore were extracted from Navajo lands under leases with the Navajo Nation. Many Navajo people worked the mines, often living in close proximity to the mines and processing mills. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, potential health effects from exposure to uranium mining include lung cancer, as well as bone cancer and impaired kidney function.

The Navajo Nation remains scarred by the largest single release of radioactive waste in the country. In 1979 an earthen dam at United Nuclear Corp. mill’s site in Church Rock, N.M., collapsed, spilling 1,100 tons of radioactive and heavy metal laced waste and 90 million gallons of contaminated liquid into the Rio Puerco, a Colorado River tributary that runs through the Navajo Reservation. Much of the contamination from that spill remains untreated.

Despite claims by uranium companies that they have improved their mining techniques, the Navajo are strongly opposed to renewed uranium mining or milling on or near its reservation. “Why should we believe these companies now when this industry has failed to clean up the toxic mess they left behind the first time?” said Navajo President Joe Shirley Jr. in testimony before a House Natural Resources subcommittee field hearing last March in Flagstaff.

In 2005, the Navajo Tribal Council passed a resolution banning uranium mining and milling from the reservation, which is roughly the size of West Virginia. The Navajo, along with Hopi, Kaibab Paiute, Hualapai and Havasupai, remain opposed to renewed uranium mining anywhere near the Grand Canyon. All the tribes support Grijalva’s bill to withdraw the federal lands near the park from mining.

Last year, the Navajo turned to McCain for help in cleaning up a small landfill near Tuba City, Ariz. that contains radioactive waste from a uranium mill operated in the 1960s by El Paso Natural Gas Co. Etsitty and officials with El Paso Natural Gas met with McCain in Washington in June 2007 to discuss drafting legislation that would require that the Energy Dept. pay for the clean up. Etsitty said they had hoped McCain would place a rider on the Iraq war reauthorization funding bill to cover this.

While McCain appeared interested during the meeting, Etsitty said, he did not advance the legislation. “The effort sort of fizzled,” Etsitty said. Richard Wheatley, an El Paso Natural Gas spokesman, said McCain later told him that “attaching a rider on that piece of legislation was not the way to go.” McCain has since offered no alternative strategy, Etsitty said.

Four months after that meeting with McCain, Waxman subpoenaed EPA officials to appear before the House Oversight and Government Affairs Committee to discuss uranium waste contamination on the Navajo Nation. Waxman said he was particularly outraged over the decades of federal neglect in McCain’s home state.

“If a fraction of the deadly contamination the Navajos live with every day had been in Beverly Hills or any wealthy community, it would have been cleaned up immediately,” Waxman said at the October hearing. “But a different standard applied to Navajo lands. Half-measures or outright neglect has been the official response. It’s hard to review this record and not feel ashamed.”

The hearing resulted in EPA working with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Energy Dept., the Indian Health Service and the Navajo tribe to coordinate a five-year plan to address uranium contamination on the reservation. The plan, released last month, calls for federal agencies to commit $161 million to prevent the spread of radioactive contamination. For the first time in the more than 50 years, the federal government has prepared a multi-agency plan to address the issue.

McCain’s absence from the Grand Canyon uranium mining debate, as well as his lack of involvement in addressing the longstanding Navajo problems, bolsters the notion that he and his party care little about the environment. McCain once seemed deeply concerned about this, and he urged fellow Republicans to protect the nation’s natural resources.

“A deep skepticism exists in the electorate about the party’s commitment to protecting the environment,” McCain wrote in the Arizona Republic on Nov. 27 1996. “Have Republicans abandoned their roots as the party of Theodore Roosevelt, who maintained that government’s most important task, with the exception of national security, is to leave posterity a land in better condition than they receive it? The answer must be ‘No.’ “

But when it comes to uranium mining in McCain’s home state, the answer now appears to be “yes.”

Elisa Mueller | Elisa Mueller was born in Kansas City, Missouri, to a mother who taught reading and a father who taught film. As a result, she spent an excessive amount of her childhood reading books and watching movies. She went to the University of Kansas for college, where she earned bachelor's degrees in English and journalism. She moved to New York City and worked for Entertainment Weekly magazine for ten years, visiting film sets all over the world.


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