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Trump is using a pandemic to weaken environmental law. First victim: The Grand Canyon

Arizona Republic logo Arizona Republic 5/7/2020 Raúl Grijalva, opinion contributor
a close up of a wire fence: Canyon Mine is a uranium mine located 6 miles southeast of Tusayan on the Kaibab National Forest near the Grand Canyon. © Mark Henle/The Republic Canyon Mine is a uranium mine located 6 miles southeast of Tusayan on the Kaibab National Forest near the Grand Canyon.

President Trump is using the worst pandemic in a century to weaken our environmental laws without public oversight, and he isn’t sparing the Grand Canyon.

While Americans shelter at home, waiting for the administration to offer a more effective medical response than injecting bleach, an administration advisory group just released a report recommending opening more public lands to uranium extraction.

The steps recommended in a new report by the Nuclear Fuel Working Group, an industry-stacked panel the president created through an executive order in July 2019, look a lot like pre-determined conclusions.

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One of the most alarming should worry every Arizonan, and frankly every American: excluding uranium mines from the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which gives Americans the chance to review and comment on major proposals that impact them.

The report, if it’s implemented, paves the way for dangerous mining of the sort that even industry cheerleaders don’t suggest in public.

Report would give polluters a free pass

This is not alarmism. The report spells it out in black and white when it recommends that federal regulators “consider categorical exclusions for uranium mineral exploration and development activities.” A categorical exclusion is offered only to individual projects determined to have no impact on the environment.

These are sometimes handed out to industry in the guise of streamlining or efficiency — which, under recent Republican administrations, have become code words for giving polluters a free pass.

The Trump administration wants to take advantage of widespread stay-at-home policies to weaken laws that protect us from unchecked pollution. A democratic government puts the people first, and cutting environmental regulations while the people aren’t able to go to a public meeting or make sure their voices are heard is not democratic.

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These recommendations are another in a long line of industry giveaways being pushed under cover of pandemic without public scrutiny.

The American people should reject this report and the rigged process used to prepare it. And as a credible new analysis from the Grand Canyon Trust shows us, even if we wanted to take the report seriously, there’s no such thing as a truly “safe” uranium mine.

The Canyon Mine, a few miles from the southern entrance to Grand Canyon National Park, was approved in 1986. It’s never produced any uranium, but it’s been far from silent. Over the past few years, the mine shaft has been flooded with tens of millions of gallons of potentially radioactive water that have had to be pumped out and, in some cases, sprayed as mist into the air.

No evidence we need new uranium mining

Three decades of producing nothing but pollution and political controversy is not a good track record — and yet this kind of site is what the Trump administration says we need a lot more of. If we follow the president’s lead, as the Trust report notes with some understatement, “The risks are only made worse if strict environmental protections and monitoring are not required.”

When we take a step back and ask some fundamental questions, it becomes clear that this isn’t even the conversation we should be having.

There has been a 20-year moratorium on new uranium mining claims around the Grand Canyon since 2012. What is the evidence that we should lift it now? What experiences have Americans had that make this such an emergency, rather than the same industry wish list item it’s always been?

The fact is that there’s no evidence our nation’s uranium supply is at risk, or has ever been at risk. There’s certainly no evidence we need to open the Grand Canyon region to new uranium mining. Those who want to do so have never been able to convince the public, so they’ve resorted to moves like pushing this new report, which recommends radical deregulation without bothering to show that it’s necessary.

The House of Representatives passed my Grand Canyon Centennial Protection Act last October along bipartisan lines. The bill makes the current moratorium on new mining claims around the Grand Canyon permanent, which — in addition to protecting the canyon in perpetuity — would put an end to the phony debate about whether we should open this wonder of the world to new mining claims.

The Senate should pass my bill and the president should sign it.

Unfortunately, the worst public health crisis in a century hasn’t slowed this administration’s giveaways of our public lands or destruction of our most fundamental environmental laws. It’s time to ask who still trusts the president when it comes to the Grand Canyon, and what they’re basing that trust on other than blind faith.

Raúl M. Grijalva is a United States congressman serving Arizona District 3 in southern Arizona.

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Trump is using a pandemic to weaken environmental law. First victim: The Grand Canyon

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