FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (CN) – Although law gives the federal government jurisdiction over the hauling of hazardous materials like uranium on highways, the Flagstaff, Arizona, City Council on Tuesday tasked its lawyers to look for a way to challenge the law.
Haul No, a group opposing uranium production, requested an ordinance banning uranium hauling through Flagstaff. Energy Fuels, soon to be the United States’ largest uranium producer, will begin mining uranium at their Canyon Mine in northern Arizona sometime next year and plans to transport the ore in open-bed trucks with tarps secured over the top.
Those opposed to the hauling worry about the possibility of hazardous spills and irradiated dust infecting people and livestock across the state.
The transport route would take uranium ore from the mine through Flagstaff and the Navajo reservation to be enriched at the Energy Fuels owned White Mesa Mill in Utah. Donn Pillmore, Energy Fuels director of operations, was the only person to speak in support of Energy Fuels at the City Council meeting Tuesday.
“Some positive aspects of the Canyon Mine are that right now 35 percent of Arizona’s electricity comes from Palo Verde’s nuclear power plant,” Pillmore said. “Canyon could provide power for Palo Verde for up to three years.”
Over 100 people attended the City Council meeting, traveling from three states and numerous cities to oppose the uranium production. One of them, Miley Hampton, urged the council to act.
“I’m urging y’all to use the systematic power that you have and stand with the people. The real people who are voicing our concerns and are determined to keep on voicing that it’s right to put people over profit,” Hampton said. “That’s what these companies are doing. They’re putting profit over people.”
An hour before the meeting started, the beating of the protest drum echoed across the lawn, clashing against the cars rushing by on Route 66 nearby. Many people gathered with signs to protest the production of uranium – the mining, hauling, and refining of uranium ore – while also supporting Native American rights.
Members of the Navajo and Havasupai tribes attended the City Council meeting. Some from the Havasupai tribe worry the Canyon Mine will accidentally taint their water source with uranium.
“I have 10 grandchildren and they swim in the water in Supai. It’s going to affect our water, the ground water, the aquifers,” Odettie Jones, a member of the Havasupai tribe, said in an interview. “I want my children to grow up where I grew up.”
Councilmember Eva Putzova said the city hasn’t taken action like this before.
“The council takes legal advice seriously. I have yet to see the council take action against legal advice, but I think this council is trying to push our city attorney to try to seek out creative ways for this issue to be addressed even if there isn’t an obvious, legal answer,” Putzova said in an interview. “I don’t know what the city attorney will come back with, but there are different ways that we can make an impact.”
The strong support for Native Americans and against uranium isn’t necessarily coming out of the blue. Flagstaff has taken action in the past to acknowledge indigenous communities. For example, the city celebrates an Indigenous Peoples Day on Columbus Day to remind people to honor their indigenous neighbors.
Also, before Haul No’s ordinance discussion, the city was informed about how it could work to help indigenous communities. While Darrell Marks, a member of Indigenous Circles of Flagstaff, is not affiliated with Haul No and only planned to attend for his group’s presentation, he stayed to listen the whole discussion. He was pleased with the council’s decision.
“I think our people, as long as we continue to come together and stand together, we’ll be able to see change happen,” Marks told Courthouse News. “We see that now with this City Council.”
Two council members had bouts with cancer that also influenced their decisions.
Mayor Coral Evans has faced breast cancer twice and said cancer may be in her genes after her mother was exposed to radiation from atomic bomb testing sites. Vice Mayor Jamie Whelan faced cancer unrelated to uranium, but said her doctor asked her a question she will never forget.
“When the question came up about throat cancer, the surgeon first asked me, ‘How much time did you spend on the reservation?’ And that is not okay,” Whelan said.
When asked by the council if Energy Fuels had considered other methods to ensure Flagstaff residents’ safety, Pillmore said they hadn’t prepared anything.
“I don’t have an answer for you on that,” Pillmore said. “But there’s chemicals and other hazardous materials that are trucked on federal and state highways that are far worse than the uranium we transport.”
Five members of the council strongly and vocally supported the idea of banning uranium hauling. While it is not clear how the city attorney will respond, the Flagstaff City Council certainly isn’t done with the issue.