The following column is the opinion and analysis of the writer.
Mni Wiconi, or water is life, is the rallying cry we’ve heard from the plains of Standing Rock, South Dakota, where indigenous people fought the pipeline industry to the residents of Flint, Michigan, still reeling from lead-contaminated water.
This sacred phrase recognizes that our very foundation — our health, our communities, the food we eat — rely upon our access to clean water. Indigenous communities like the ones I represent in Congress have understood this sacred connection since time immemorial and are fighting to ensure that the rest of the world understands it as well.
It’s one of the many reasons that the House of Representatives passed the Grand Canyon Centennial Protection Act, a bill I introduced to permanently protect over 1 million acres around the Grand Canyon from uranium mining. Failing to do so will endanger the health and lives of not only these Indigenous communities, but all of us who call Arizona home.
The Grand Canyon is more than the crown jewel of our National Parks system. It’s also the home of the Havasupai people and a sacred site to many of Arizona’s indigenous peoples, including the Hualapai, Navajo, Hopi, Zuni and more.
This area is the essence of their creation story, historic petroglyphs, burial grounds, and homes. For centuries these communities have lived in harmony with the Grand Canyon, seeing it for the natural wonder it is — not a site ripe for exploitation and profit.
These communities and sacred traditions will all be at risk if the Trump administration has its way and paves the way for the Grand Canyon to once again be open for business to uranium mining companies. With former mining lobbyists running the show at the Interior Department, the Trump administration has set its sights on rolling back the Grand Canyon’s protections and selling off the lands surrounding the national park to the highest bidder.
We don’t have to look any further than recent history to see the impact this will have on the health and well-being of the Native communities who live in the areas surrounding the Grand Canyon.
During the Cold War, thousands of uranium mines opened across the Southwest to fuel the nation’s nuclear arsenal. Mining companies eager to maximize profits hired Native American workers from the surrounding reservations but in many cases neglected to provide basic workplace protections to reduce their exposure to the dangerous uranium they mined.
After numerous former miners died of uranium contamination and many mining companies declaring bankruptcy rather than clean up their messes, thousands of abandoned radioactive uranium mines litter the landscape of the Southwest.
Earlier this month, a new study found that women and newborn babies still exhibited higher radiation concentrations than other parts of the country — decades after many of the uranium mines shut down. I saw the consequences firsthand on a recent visit to Window Rock on Navajo Nation, where I met surviving uranium miners and heard their stories of exploitation, sickness and abandonment.
The mining companies argue that we need mining in the Grand Canyon to protect our domestic supply chain and safeguard our national security. However, numerous nuclear experts have stated that the United States nuclear arsenal has enough stockpile to last until 2060, and domestic nuclear power plants have balked at efforts by domestic uranium mining producers to disrupt their supply chains.
The bottom line is that some things are more important than money.
I’m unwilling to accept that uranium mining is more important than protecting the public health and well-being of Native communities and the tens of millions of people across the Southwest who depend on the Colorado River for their water supply.
The House passed the Grand Canyon Centennial Protection Act to prevent this toxic legacy from reoccurring in the future. The legislation permanently codifies the moratorium on any new mining claims around the Grand Canyon implemented under the Obama Administration and permanently protects the communities and ecosystems surrounding the canyon along with the clean air, water and land they need to survive.
It pushes back on the Trump administration’s narrative that consistently prioritizes the profits of mining corporations over the needs of our communities and reinforces the voices of local businesses, tribes, sportsmen and community leaders who believe that the Grand Canyon is simply too precious to mine.
Dangerous uranium mining that poisons our communities, endangers our livelihoods, and destroys an iconic national treasure like the Grand Canyon has no place in our backyard.
We don’t have to live in a world where we sacrifice the lives of the vulnerable to chase the pipe dreams of uranium mining companies who have sold the false promise of long-term economic growth and investment time and time again. The Grand Canyon Centennial Protection Act ensures that the mistakes of the past are never repeated and safeguards the environmental health of the Grand Canyon and the communities that surround it for generations to come.
Despite the lobbyists running the Interior Department, Mni Wiconi — water is life — still means something to me and millions of Americans in Arizona and beyond who support strong environmental protections for the Grand Canyon.