Celebrities Implore Obama: No Uranium Mining Near Grand Canyon

WASHINGTON, DC, June 6, 2011 (ENS) – Fifty statesmen, scholars and conservation leaders are calling on President Barack Obama to extend a one-million-acre mining moratorium around Grand Canyon National Park for 20 years to counter the flood of uranium mining claims filed for lands surrounding the deep-cut canyon of the Colorado River.

The request came in an open letter published this week in the New York Times, with a distinguished list of signers that includes: Theodore Roosevelt IV, former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson; actor, director and founder of the Sundance Film Festival Robert Redford; actor and UN Goodwill Ambassador Edward Norton; film director Ken Burns; World Bank science adviser Thomas Lovejoy; Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

The administration is expected to make a decision on the issue this month.

“A trip to the Grand Canyon is an American birthright, and the watershed is irreplaceable to tens of millions in the Southwest,” said Mayor Gordon. “The Grand Canyon ecosystem is arguably our greatest natural treasure and a tremendous economic asset for Arizona and the region. It must be protected.”

Visits to the Grand Canyon generate revenue of $687 million annually and contribute to the creation of more than 12,000 full-time jobs, according to a 2005 study from Northern Arizona University.

Officials from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and the Southern Nevada Water Authority have lobbied to limit new uranium mining along the Grand Canyon’s Colorado River watershed, which provides drinking water for 25 million people.

In 2009, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar issued a temporary halt to claims on national forest lands and other public lands surrounding the park, a moratorium that is slated to expire in July.

In February 2011, the Obama administration announced a draft plan to protect 1 million acres of the Grand Canyon watershed from new uranium mining. The administration has sought public comment on four alternatives under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, ranging from extending the moratorium for 20 years to lifting the ban on the entire area.

The mining industry opposes any long-term effort to limit uranium development near the park.

Public lands surrounding Grand Canyon National Park contain some of the highest concentrations of uranium deposits in North America. High uranium prices in recent years have prompted hundreds of new mining claims and exploration on those lands.

A report released in May by the Pew Environment Group used Bureau of Land Management data to show that claims around Grand Canyon National Park increased 2,000 percent between 2005 and 2010.

Hundreds of the claims are controlled by foreign interests, including Russia’s state atomic energy corporation, Rosatom, and South Korea’s state-owned utility.

“This is an important opportunity for President Obama to exercise visionary leadership in the tradition of Theodore Roosevelt,” said Jane Danowitz, the Pew Environment Group’s director of U.S. public lands. “At this defining moment, we urge the President to make no further delays and to stand by his administration’s initial recommendation to give this special place the full protection it deserves.”

Members of Congress are standing up for the ban as well. A letter from 63 members of the House of Representatives sent last month to Secretary Salazar said, “Mining so close to the Canyon could seriously impair the region’s ecosystems: wreaking havoc on the landscape, drying up critical seeps and springs, disturbing fish and wildlife and releasing toxic chemicals into the environment.”

Uranium could also “degrade the downstream water supply, relied on by millions of Americans,” the Congress members said in their letter.

The uranium mining claims are staked under the 1872 Mining Law that still governs hardrock mining on public lands in the West. Signed by President Ulysses S. Grant, the law gives mining companies “free and open access” to nearly 350 million acres of public land.

It also allows mining companies, even those that are foreign-owned, to take about $1 billion annually in gold and other metals from public lands without paying a royalty, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxic Release Inventory identifies the hardrock mining industry as the nation’s top polluter, and EPA reports more than $2 billion in federal spending over the past decade on mine cleanup.

On June 25, 2008, the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Natural Resources passed an emergency resolution directing the Secretary of the Interior to immediately withdraw the million acres of public lands near Grand Canyon National Park from all forms of mineral entry and location.

At the time, the secretary was required to comply with the emergency resolution under both the Federal Land Policy and Management Act and a long-standing Bureau of Land Management regulation. But then Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne did not comply.

Instead, in December 2008, during the last few weeks of the Bush administration, Kempthorne finalized a new rule eliminating that BLM regulation.

The Bush administration’s refusal to comply with the law forced the Center for Biological Diversity, Grand Canyon Trust, and Sierra Club to file suit in federal court to compel Secretary Kempthorne to withdraw these lands and stop uranium development.

That lawsuit was pre-empted by Interior Secretary Salazar’s moratorium, which expires in July.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2011. All rights reserved.