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Uranium Industry’s COVID-19 Bailout Request Sparks a Disgusted Pushback via Phoenix New Times

ELIZABETH WHITMAN 

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One July morning in 1979, a dam containing tailings from United Nuclear Corporation’s uranium mill some 200 miles away broke, letting loose more than 1,000 tons of waste. Ninety-four million gallons of radioactive water gushed into the Puerco River, which feeds the Little Colorado.

More than 40 years later, the Church Rock spill is still the biggest release of radioactive material in American history.

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Uranium mining has left a toxic, indelible imprint on the Navajo Nation. Mining companies would come in over the years to hire Navajo people for the backbreaking work of picking at uranium ore and hauling it in wheelbarrows. 

When the companies were ready to move on, they abandoned more than 500 mines on the Navajo Nation, the water they had contaminated, and the people who worked them, many of whom died of cancer and whose offspring were born with birth defects, Peshlakai said.

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At the end of March, two uranium companies penned a letter to President Donald Trump asking for a $150 million bailout, citing the economic impacts of COVID-19. One of them was Energy Fuels Resources, which hopes to open a uranium mine south of the Grand Canyon and whose exploratory operations already have led to it trucking radioactive water across the Navajo Nation.

The request quickly sparked disgust and fury among those who oppose the industry’s deleterious effects on people and the land. 

Last Friday, a cohort of 75 conservation and grassroots groups penned a missive of their own and sent it to four congressional leaders, asking them to reject any bailout for an industry that has wreaked so much destruction, and calling into question the companies’ claims that a public health crisis like COVID-19 justifies extending a lifeline to a declining industry.

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Jared Touchin, a spokesperson for Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez and Vice President Myron Lizer, said that the two leaders “would not support this effort if it proposes to use uranium resources that impact the Navajo people.”

Peshlakai also rejected the idea that the industry, which has never been held accountable for its operations in Arizona, receive a bailout.

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In their letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi, and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, the 75 groups declared that the uranium industry was “falsely” suggesting that the COVID-19 pandemic had led to uranium shortages that threatened supply chains.

Rather than helping the industry, they said, Congress should “invest stimulus funds towards the assessment, reclamation, and cleanup of the hundreds of thousands of abandoned hardrock mines on public and tribal lands, which are currently polluting roughly 40 percent of western headwaters.”

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Citing the fact that Arizona Public Service, which operates the country’s largest nuclear power plant, Palo Verde, recently said it was “confident” it could provide reliable service throughout the pandemic, they suggested that the industry’s warning of supply chain disruptions was misleading.

“Industry reports are telling us that they have more than enough uranium,” said Ray Rasker, executive director of the Montana-based Headwaters Economics, a nonprofit land management research firm. The U.S. already has a stockpile of uranium, he explained.

Because of a global oversupply or uranium, prices have also fallen low, Rasker said; right now, prices are below $30 a pound. And if they were to rise again, the most economically viable deposits of uranium in North America are in Saskatchewan, Canada — an ally of the U.S. 

“There’s no national security concern,” Rasker said.

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