Havasupai tribe: Pinion Plain uranium mine threatens our existence

By: - June 28, 2022 9:25 am

Havasu Falls, one of five Havasupai waterfalls deep in Arizona’s Havasu Canyon, an offshoot of Grand Canyon National Park but on lands administered by the Havasupai Indian Tribe. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith | Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

For decades, the Havasupai Tribe has voiced its opposition against the operation of Pinyon Plain Mine, a uranium mine located about 10 miles south of the Grand Canyon.

“As the Havasupai Tribe, we have stood strong continuing the protection of the natural resources in and around the Grand Canyon region,” Havasupai Vice-Chairman Edmond Tilousi said in a written statement.

The Havasupai Tribe and several conservation groups have opposed this mine for years and were even involved in a lengthy legal battle that sought to close the mine, but a federal judge ruled in the mine’s favor in 2020.

But that hasn’t stopped the Havasupai from trying to stop the mine. Its latest effort comes in the form of a letter of opposition to the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ), which recently issued an aquifer protection plan permit to the mine. 


In announcing the permit, the state agency in April acknowledged the tribe’s opposition, but said that “careful consideration and comprehensive review of the extensive technical record for the mine” led it to approve the permit

An Arizona Aquifer Protection Permit is required for any facility that discharges pollutants into the groundwater, according to the ADEQ website. To obtain an aquifer protection permit, the structure must meet the state’s aquifer water quality standards and demonstrate that it is using the latest technology to reduce any discharge of pollutants before it reaches the aquifer.

In this instance, the Havasupai say ADEQ got it wrong, and the aquifer — and therefore the tribe — will face irreparable harm.

“The aquifers are too important to continue to be contaminated and sacrificed by Energy Fuels and ADEQ,” Vice-Chairman Tilousi said

The underground uranium mine sits on U.S. Forest Service land in the Kaibab National Forest in northern Arizona. The Havasupai Tribe, which lives at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, says the mine poses risks to the drinking water, natural wonders, and sacred cultural sites of the tribe.

The mine has a history of flooding, according to the Center for Biological Diversity, and it drains into shallow groundwater aquifers that flow into South Rim springs. 

The mine also threatens to contaminate deep aquifers that feed Havasu Creek and other Grand Canyon springs, the CBD said in a press release supporting the tribe’s opposition letter.

“State regulators are bowing to the uranium industry while risking irretrievable harm to groundwater feeding Havasu and other Grand Canyon springs,” Taylor McKinnon, the Senior Public Lands Campaigner at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in that press release

“Charging forward amidst dangerous scientific uncertainty threatens human rights and makes the Grand Canyon state the Grand Canyon’s worst enemy,” he added. “Mine remediation and closure remains the only safe option.

If our water source becomes contaminated like we have seen in other areas of Arizona due to uranium mining, we will no longer be able to live in our homes, Supai Village will become extinct, and our time as ‘The People of the Blue-Green Water’ will come to a close.

The 17-acre mine is owned and operated by Energy Fuels Resources, one of the leading uranium producers in the United States.

Uranium ore production has never occurred at the Pinyon Plain Mine, according to the U.S. Forest Service: Although Energy Fuels has sunk a mine shaft, it hasn’t extracted any uranium because there isn’t enough demand for uranium. According to a Forest Service analysis, the mine could produce an estimated 1.6 million pounds of ore.

The Tribe stated that the mine also damages Havasupai cultural sites and poses a contamination threat to Havasu Creek, the sole water source for the Supai village.

According to an analysis from the Grand Canyon Trust, the mineshaft drilling pierced shallow aquifers, which then caused water pumped from the mine to spike from 151,000 gallons in 2015 to 1.4 million gallons in 2016. Since then, Grand Canyon Trust said that inflow has ranged from over 8 million gallons of groundwater in 2017 to more than 10 million gallons in 2019.

The Grand Canyon trust is a nonprofit organization dedicated to conservation and environmental advocacy along the Grand Canyon and Colorado Plateau.

“If our water source becomes contaminated like we have seen in other areas of Arizona due to uranium mining, we will no longer be able to live in our homes, Supai Village will become extinct, and our time as ‘The People of the Blue-Green Water’ will come to a close,” the tribe argues in its letter to state regulators.

The Havasupai Tribe’s land is over 188,000 acres of canyon land and broken plateaus bordering the western edge of the Grand Canyons’ south rim. Supai, their main village, is located eight miles below the rim of the Grand Canyon.

The Havasupai Tribe issued a formal letter of opposition to the ADEQ’s Director Misael Cabrera on May 27. The 15-page letter outlined the tribe’s stance against the mine and requested improved consultation with ADEQ, and data-sharing on the mine’s operations and contaminants.

“We have been at the forefront of opposition to uranium mining within our aboriginal lands for generations,” the letter states. “The associated health risks are known and documented, and these negative impacts have disproportionately affected indigenous populations in northern Arizona, you can not simply ignore them.”

Havasupai Tribal Councilman Stuart L.T. Chavez said the tribe has fought for decades to protect its water and traditional cultural lands from the harmful effects of uranium mining.

“Contamination from the Pinyon Plain Mine (formerly Canyon Mine) has already caused millions of gallons of precious water to be rendered unusable and wasted,” Chavez in a statement about the tribe’s letter.

There are two separate aquifers beneath the site, according to the ADEQ: the Coconino aquifer, which is 941 feet below the ground surface, and the Redwall-Muav aquifer, which is 2,870 feet below the ground surface.

“Every day, the Pinyon Plain Mine threatens contamination of Havasu Creek, the sole water source that provides life to Supai Village,” Vice-Chariman Tilousi said in a statement.

The Havasupai Tribe said the letter they sent documents consistent failures by ADEQ to consider the best science available and the well-founded concerns of Indigenous people who bear the environmental burdens of the Pinyon Plain Mine.

“One of the things that the Tribe has worked on is declaring that entire area as a traditional cultural property site, through state and federal processes,” said Carletta Tilousi, who is the vice-chair for the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council and a former Havasupai Councilmember, in an interview with the Arizona Mirror.

“All around that area, we have numerous archeological sites that reflect the area as a sacred and historical area,” she added. The tribe wants people to be aware that that area is a traditional cultural property site for them and those sites are all being violated since the mine site was erected.

Pinyon Plain Mine sits within the Havasupai Tribe’s traditional cultural property known as Red Butte, or Wii Qdwiisa in the Havasupai language, which means “the lungs of Mother Earth.” 

“Without this precious resource, our Tribe and homeland will be destroyed,” Vice-Chairman Tilousi said in a statement.

Diana Sue Uqualla, representing the Havasupai tribe, at the New Mather Point Amphitheater and Landmark Feature dedication ceremony on Oct. 25, 2010. Photo by Grand Canyon National Park/National Park Service

Carletta Tilousi said that the site is about three miles away from the mine, and the tribe has constantly asked companies not to do their mining in the area. 

“They failed to listen to us, failed to support and recognize that all around this area, Red Butte and the mine site are our sites of cultural significance to the Tribe,” she added. “Not only did the mining company not recognize that, nor did the Forest Service, who is supposed to protect our sacred sites on public lands.”

ADEQ Director Misael Cabrera told the Mirror that he is disappointed that the tribe is continuing to criticize the agency, despite its best efforts to hear and understand the tribe’s concerns. 

“It’s disheartening to us that we’ve gone to great lengths to make this the most protective conventional uranium permit in the state of Arizona and possibly the country, and that in return we are still receiving hyperbolic accusations about our work,” he added.

The reality, Cabrera said, is that “it’s not entirely clear that any response outside of denying the permit would be sufficient to the tribe.”

Because the tribe has been in this fight against the mine for so long, they’ve exhausted all their legal options, which is why they sent a letter of opposition rather than applying for an appeal against the ADEQ’s permit.

“The reason why we had pushed for this letter was because our options are very limited,” Chavez said in an interview with the Mirror. The tribe has been fighting against this mine since its inception in the 1980s, losing legal battles every step of the way. 

“It’s been unfortunate to know that the law, the mining operation law from the 1880s, prevents small Indigenous communities from protecting their land,” Chavez said. 

The mining law of 1872 declared all valuable mineral deposits found in land belonging to the United States to be free and open to exploration and purchase. The law provides US citizens the chance to explore, discover and purchase certain valuable mineral deposits on federal lands that are open for mining location and patent

That law is what makes it impossible for the Havasupai Tribe to make any proper moves against the mine, Chavez said.

Some elected leaders are working to update America’s mining laws. Leading the charge to do so are U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Tucson, who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee, and U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, who both have sponsored bills that would set environmental and reclamation standards

Their legislation also would require mining companies to clean up abandoned mines, lease the federal lands they operate on and pay royalties for the revenue from public lands.

There was no way for us to lawfully deny this permit. Had we done so, the applicant would have taken it to court and won. And we would have lost every opportunity to make the permit abundantly protective.

– Misael Cabrera, Arizona Department of Environmental Quality

The old mining law is not the only frustration the Havasupai Tribe has encountered: The Pinyon Pine Mine is still operating on an environmental impact statement from the mid-1980s.

“We’re allowing one company to come in and operate on an old environmental impact statement approved in 1984,” Carletta Tilousi said. The final environmental impact statement for the mine was submitted in 1986, and no updated impact statement has been done.

“We believe that those very issues were addressed in the federal environmental impact statement, which specifically looks at cultural and archeological aspects,” Cabrera said. “That environmental impact statement was litigated twice and found that there was no reasonable reason to deny the permit.”

“I’m personally not an expert on those matters,” He added. “Those matters have been addressed by the federal government and the environmental impact statement.”

Carletta Tilousi doesn’t think that the mine should be allowed to operate on a plan of operations that was submitted more than 15 years old.

“Laws have changed, the economy has changed, and I believe their plan of operations should have been updated,” she added. “Since that was not updated, and they’re operating on an old environmental impact statement, we, the Tribe, find that it’s not appropriate that they continue on such an old environmental impact statement.”

Since the mine is sitting on public land, Carletta Tilousi said more people need to be aware of what is happening in that area. 

“This is public lands that are supposed to be protected and managed by the forest service,” she said, and when they visit the mining, the Tribe feels like there is no one monitoring what is happening there.

During the ADEQ’s initial visits before the permit was granted, Chavez and Carletta Tilousi said the Havasupai Tribe did go with them while they visited the area and talked to them in extensive detail about how the has great cultural significance to their people.

“Even though we brought all these issues of cultural significance, they weren’t considering that as part of their decision,” Carletta Tilousi said. “They went out there to see it, but I don’t think that they will ever have an understanding of what it means to be Havasupai.”

Through this letter, Carletta Tilousi said that it shows the Tribe has documented everything that has been happening since the mine was developed in the 1980s.

“We went to great lengths studying all of the available science, including the studies that were attached to their letter,” Cabrera said. “The whole of the science suggests that there is no reasonable probability of this mine impacting the Havasupai’s water.”

The Havasupai’s 15-page letter provides a lot of information regarding the Pinyon Pine Mine, but there are two major reasons in the letter why the Tribe opposed the ADEQ’s authorization of the permit. 

The first is how the ADEQ failed to consider the cultural significance of Havasu Springs and the direct consequences of the mine on the tribe. 

The letter states that the ADEQ fell short of its commitment to tribal consultation and collaboration and it failed to meet its written consultation-related commitments.

The second is that the permit results in significant transparency issues and gaps in information.

Cabrera said he doesn’t know why they pointed out those two reasons as their opposition to the permit and the ADEQ’s decision. 

“I would say that, on both counts, ADEQ did everything that we could that was based in science and law,” Cabrera said. “But the fact of the matter is, is that the tribe is in opposition to this permit because we simply would not do what they want us to do, which was to deny the operating permit, and that request simply was not based in law or science.”

“There was no way for us to lawfully deny this permit. Had we done so, the applicant would have taken it to court and won,” Cabrera said. “And we would have lost every opportunity to make the permit abundantly protective.”

“They are free to oppose our decisions,” Cabrera said of the Havasupai Tribe. “(But) the way in which they accuse us of not doing our work properly, of not caring about the environment and in not completing our commitments to our tribal policy, I believe present a real psychological danger for my staff.”


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Shondiin Silversmith
Shondiin Silversmith

Shondiin Silversmith is an award-winning Native journalist based on the Navajo Nation. Silversmith has covered Indigenous communities for more than 10 years, and covers Arizona's 22 federally recognized sovereign tribal nations, as well as national and international Indigenous issues.