A federal effort to protect 1 million acres of public land around the Grand Canyon from the potential hazards of uranium-mining was a sure thing just weeks ago, but the measure has been hitting resistance lately from Republican members of Congress.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is poised to ban new hard-rock mining claims on the watershed of the Grand Canyon for the next 20 years in order to safeguard water resources.
During a speech at the South Rim on June 20, he reportedly told a crowd that the proposed ban was necessary because allowing a uranium-mining surge risks polluting the Colorado River and nearby springs, a source of drinking water for some 26 million people locally and downstream.
“All of us — by the decisions we make in our short time here — can alter the grandeur of this place. As Teddy Roosevelt famously implored, ‘Leave it as it is . . . man can only mar it,’” Salazar said.
“Millions of Americans living in cities like Phoenix and Los Angeles rely on this river and this canyon for clean, healthy drinking water, and that is one of the many reasons why wisdom, caution, and science should guide our protection of the Grand Canyon.”
His decision comes at the close of a twoyear temporary mining ban to allow for environmental and hydro-geologic studies within the 1 million acres. The study could not rule out that increased mining activity, especially for radioactive uranium, would not negatively affect water quality in the river basin over time. The mining moratorium, known as a “mineral withdrawal,” exempts mines with valid existing rights, of which there are an estimated 8-11 in the region, some of which are being hotly contested in court by environmental groups and mining companies.
However, Salazar cannot enact his preferred alternative of a 20-year ban on new claims — the maximum allowed under the Department of Interior laws — until December to allow final drafts of environmental reports to be completed. In the meantime he extended the two-year mining ban for an additional six months to stop the mining industry from seizing on the loophole to start up mines.
Salazar’s pending decision was applauded by environmental groups, the National Park Service and downstream cities, but drew criticism from pro-mining interests, including U.S. Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Arizona) and Ron Hochstein, CEO of Denison Mines, a Torontobased company with several uranium mines in the Southwest and within area of the Grand Canyon mining ban.
In July, Flake and other Republicans added a last-ditch amendment to the Interior and Environmental Protection Agency’s 2012 appropriations bill that would strip the legal authority of Salazar’s office to impose a 20-year ban on new uranium mining outside the park where it has been traditionally allowed under the 1872 Mining Law.
“Uranium-mining outside of Grand Canyon National Park can create jobs and stimulate the economy in northern Arizona without jeopardizing the splendor and natural beauty within the Park,” wrote Flake in a July 12 press release. His office did not respond to phone and e-mail messages for comment.
Flake’s rider is part of a wave of last-minute amendments designed by the Republican Party to surreptitiously gut environmental laws such as the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Air Act, mountain-top-removal restrictions for coal-mining, and the Wilderness Act, by tacking them on to budget bills needed to fund public-land agencies.
The amendment to rebuff Salazar’s mineral withdrawal and re-start uranium-mining around the Grand Canyon was awaiting a vote for cancellation by Democrats, but was mired in the debt-reduction bill languishing in the U.S. House of Representatives as of press time.
Public-lands watchdogs say the rider tactic is a familiar political game.
“This is changing laws to serve an industry that donates to their political campaigns,” Taylor McKinnon, public-lands coordinator for the Center for Biological Diversity, told the Free Press. “It is Congress trying to make pork out of public lands.”
The Center for Biological Diversity has been fighting to end uranium-mining in the region and educate the public about the risks to the environment when things go wrong or clean-up is ignored. Dozens of spent uranium mines litter the Southwest, especially on the Navajo Nation, which banned uranium-mining in 2005 due to its legacy of environmental damage that lingers today in the form of radiation poisoning.
Salazar’s preference for a 20-year moratorium is “excellent news for the Grand Canyon and when the final decision is made, it is one we will celebrate and defend,” McKinnon continued. “The bottom line is that the uranium industry can’t guarantee that mining won’t pollute the aquifers that feed Grand Canyon springs and if that pollution were to happen it would be impossible to clean up.
“Industry is asking the public to risk irreparable harm to aquifers’ and springs’ biologic diversity relied on by species and people.”
But uranium advocates contend that modern technology and strict environmental laws make uranium-mining safe to the land, water and public.
“These mines are small and the EIS [environmental impact statement] shows there is no significant impact in the past or predicted for the future,” said Ron Hochstein, CEO of Denison Mines, which operates mines in the withdrawal area.
In a phone interview with the Free Press, Hochstein said the mines are a significant component to feeding the White Mesa Mill, near Blanding, Utah, which transforms the ore into yellowcake, the first step in the creation of fuel rods for U.S. nuclear power plants. The White Mesa Mill employs 150 people and is the only such plant in the country, although another is planned for Paradox Valley, Colo.
“The uranium industry provides good jobs that pay well with a lot of spin-off opportunities, and for people in the Four Corners looking for work that is important,” Hochstein said. “Salazar is pandering to the anti-development groups, but people need to realize that industry can work hand in hand with tourism; it doesn’t have to be one or the other.”
The Obama Administration faces a conundrum when it comes to nuclear energy.
The President and his energy secretary support more nuclear power plants as a way to replace more-polluting coal plants contributing to global warming. But when geologic coincidence puts uranium reserves next to cherished resources such as the Grand Canyon and the Colorado River, the risks of extracting the radioactive substance seem too great. But the West is vast and replete with valuable minerals, so there is always somewhere else to mine for uranium.
“Critics will falsely claim that with a full 1-million- acre withdrawal from new hard-rock mining claims, we would somehow be denying all access to uranium resources,” Salazar said at the South Rim. “That of course is not true. Uranium remains a vital component of a responsible and comprehensive energy strategy and we will continue to develop uranium in northern Arizona, Wyoming and other places across the country.”
A new U.S. president could rescind mineral- withdrawal orders by the former Interior Secretary. A bill by Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) called the Grand Canyon Watershed Protection Act would protect the area around the Grand Canyon permanently.