08/22/2011 11:09 am ET | Updated Oct 22, 2011

Assault On an American Icon; How Low Will They Go?

Our leaders in Washington seem to know no limits. While the nation was focused on the debt ceiling debacle, the most anti-environmental assault ever perpetrated on our health and natural resources, Interior Appropriations bill H.R. 2584, passed out of the U.S. House of Representatives Appropriations Committee. Rather than focus their attention on how to fund the nation's core environmental programs, big polluters and their congressional allies included 39 provisions that threaten to poison our air, pollute our waters, and destroy some of the most beautiful places in the country.

Even the most iconic of all American places -- the Grand Canyon -- came under fire. If passed into law, this bill would open the area around Grand Canyon National Park to new uranium mining claims, turning our national treasure into a toxic waste dump and potentially contaminating the drinking water supplies of millions of Americans.

The devastating legacy of uranium mining is already dreadfully clear, thanks to irresponsible mining that occurred during the mid-20th century boom years. People living in the states surrounding the Grand Canyon already suffer the consequences of uranium mining pollution -- cancer, anemia and birth defects among them. Carcinogenic dust from tailings piles blows into the air, harming the lungs of miners and nearby residents, while radioactive water pumped out of mineshafts leaches toxic chemicals like arsenic into soils and aquifers, poisoning drinking water supplies for miles around.

In 1979, an under-publicized uranium mining accident at New Mexico's Church Rock Mine dumped millions of gallons of wastewater into the Little Colorado River -- releasing more radiation than the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster and ruining the drinking water for people living as far as 50 miles downstream. Adding insult to injury, taxpayers have been saddled with the enormous cleanup costs of this and other catastrophes. Poorly contained wastewater at the Cotter Corporation Uranium Mill in Colorado resulted in a toxic plume of contaminated groundwater, and has already cost taxpayers more than a billion dollars in cleanup costs.

The Grand Canyon itself bears the scars of uranium mining that took place during the 1950s and 1960s. Radioactive waste has poisoned streams and soils in and around the canyon, and abandoned mines stand like wounds against the stunning Arizona backdrop. The deserted Orphan Mine, only a few steps from the popular Hermit Overlook, is blighted with signs warning visitors to keep a safe distance. Soil radiation levels around the mine are 450 times above normal and the nearby Horn Creek is contaminated as a result.

Failure to learn from the mistakes of the past will result in new and expanded uranium mining in the Grand Canyon, likely with devastating impacts on this beloved national treasure, millions of visitors and nearby residents. The Colorado River, which winds through the bottom of the canyon, provides drinking water to 25 million people, including the residents of Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Phoenix and San Diego. A disaster on the scale of the Church Rock Mine incident would poison that drinking water.

We can't ruin the Grand Canyon. Doing the bidding of their special interest allies, leadership in the House will likely continue their assault on the nation's air, water and land when Congress returns from recess in September. Now is the time for Americans to stand up for the Grand Canyon and other places and resources we hold dear. Together we must ensure that Congress votes against the Appropriations bill. Let's not let uranium mining trash our national treasure.

Click here to find out how you can help save the Grand Canyon. For an in-depth analysis of the dangers of uranium mining past and present, see Environment America's new report "Grand Canyon Grand Canyon at Risk: Uranium Mining Doesn't Belong Near our National Treasures."