Grand Canyon Protected From New Uranium Mines

WASHINGTON, DC, January 9, 2012 (ENS) – There will be no new uranium mines on more than one million acres of federal land surrounding the Grand Canyon for the next 20 years, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced today.

Secretary Salazar signed a Record of Decision today during a ceremony held at the National Geographic Museum in Washington, DC, extending the current moratorium on new uranium mining claims.

Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar signs the Record of Decision withdrawing one million acres from mining consideration, January 9, 2012. Back row from left, Congressmen Raul Grijalva of Arizona and Ed Markey of Massachusetts. (Photo by Jared King courtesy Navajo Nation Washington Office)

The decision hands a victory to environmental groups and tribes who have fought for years to keep uranium mining out of the area.

The affected lands are situated in three areas, all in the vicinity of the Grand Canyon or Grand Canyon National Park, in Mohave and Coconino counties of northern Arizona. Approximately 3,200 mining claims are currently located in the withdrawal areas.

“A withdrawal is the right approach for this priceless American landscape,” Salazar said. “People from all over the country and around the world come to visit the Grand Canyon. Numerous American Indian tribes regard this magnificent icon as a sacred place and millions of people in the Colorado River Basin depend on the river for drinking water, irrigation, industrial and environmental use.”

The Public Land Order to withdraw these acres for 20 years from new mining claims and sites under the 1872 Mining Law, subject to valid existing rights, is authorized by the Federal Land Policy and Management Act.

Companies seeking to exploit public resources for profits are among the losers in this withdrawal. Under the 1872 Mining Law, mining companies are not required to pay royalties to the public for the mineral resources that they extract, although taxpayers can be left to pay for environmental cleanups after the mines are closed.

Without the withdrawal, there could be 30 uranium mines in the area over the next 20 years, including the four that are currently approved, with as many as six operating at one time, the agency’s Final Environmental Impact Statement estimates.

Withdrawal areas are outlined in red on this map of northern Arizona. (Map courtesy Department of the Interior)

“We have been entrusted to care for and protect our precious environmental and cultural resources, and we have chosen a responsible path that makes sense for this and future generations,” Salazar said.

The withdrawal does not prohibit previously approved uranium mining, new projects that could be approved on claims and sites with valid existing rights.

The withdrawal allows other natural resource development in the area, including mineral leasing, oil and gas leasing, sand and gravel permits, geothermal leasing and mineral materials sales.

“The withdrawal maintains the pace of hardrock mining, particularly uranium, near the Grand Canyon,” said Bureau of Land Management Director Bob Abbey, “but also gives the department a chance to monitor the impacts associated with uranium mining in this area. It preserves the ability of future decision-makers to make thoughtful decisions about managing this area of national environmental and cultural significance based on the best information available.”

During the withdrawal period, the BLM projects that up to 11 uranium mines, including four that are currently approved, could still be developed based on valid pre-existing rights. Jobs supported by mining in the area would increase or remain flat as compared to the current level, the BLM’s analysis shows.

The withdrawn area includes 355,874 acres of U.S. Forest Service land on the Kaibab National Forest; 626,678 acres of Bureau of Land Management lands; and 23,993 acres where surface lands are held by other owners while subsurface minerals are owned by the federal government.

“The decision made today by the secretary will help ensure continued protection of the Grand Canyon watershed and World Heritage designated Grand Canyon National Park,” said National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis.

Environmental groups were pleased with the decision.

Abandoned uranium mine on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon (Photo by jshyun)

“This tremendously important decision will not only preserve the integrity and incredible views surrounding the park, but also prevent uranium mining pollution from contaminating the Colorado River, which supplies drinking water to 25 million people,” said David Nimkin, senior regional director, Southwest, with the National Parks Conservation Association.

Gene Karpinski said on behalf of the League of Conservation Voters, “This is a big win for all of us who care about protecting the Grand Canyon’s natural splendor. Extending the current moratorium on new uranium mining claims will protect tourism related jobs, drinking water for millions downstream, and critical wildlife habitats.”

Today’s decision is the culmination of more than two years of evaluation during which the BLM analyzed the proposed withdrawal in an EIS prepared in cooperation with the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Park Service.

Numerous cooperating agencies, tribes, counties and stakeholders were engaged in this process, which included an extensive public involvement period which generated more than 350,000 comments, including input from more than 90 countries.

The Colorado River formed the Grand Canyon and supplies drinking water for millions of people downstream. (Photo by Nick Herbert)

Praising the decision, Christy Goldfuss, director of the Public Lands Project, said, “This is the best call to protect a national treasure. After taking a time-out to study the impacts of excessive uranium mining on the Grand Canyon, the administration came to a fact-based conclusion. The real winners of this decision are American families that will continue to enjoy one of our country’s most beautiful locations, the outdoor recreation industry that supports the conservation economy, and the millions of people that drink the water that flows through the region.”

According to the Center for American Progress Fund, a liberal political action organization, the losers include international atomic interests that have expressed interest in the uranium deposits around the Grand Canyon, such as Rosatom, Russia’s state nuclear agency; Denison Mining, partially owned by Korea’s state-owned electric utility; and Vane Minerals, a British company.

“Today, with this announcement, Secretary Salazar and President Obama have listened to the American people – who submitted over 300,000 comments in favor of protecting the Grand Canyon – and made sure that Teddy Roosevelt’s vision for the Grand Canyon remains intact,” said Arizona Congressman Raul Grijalva, a Democrat who serves as ranking member on the National Parks Subcommittee in the House of Representatives.

But Arizona Republican Congressmen Jeff Flake, Paul Gosar and Trent Franks, who support uranium mining in the withdrawal area, are critical of the decision and intend to block it if they can.

“Uranium mining in northern Arizona occurs well outside Grand Canyon National Park and poses no threat to the Grand Canyon or the tourism industry in northern Arizona. This withdrawal is simply another example of the Obama administration’s overreach that will stymie local economic growth and local job creation,” said Flake.

Visitors from around the world visit the Grand Canyon, October 2011 (Photo by steviep187)

On October 12, 2011, Congressmen Franks, Flake and Gosar, among others, introduced H.R. 3155, the Northern Arizona Mining Continuity Act. If enacted into law within 60 days of today’s decision, the measure would bar the Department of the Interior from withdrawing the one million acres surrounding the Grand Canyon from mining consideration for the next 20 years. Senators John McCain and Jon Kyl, both Arizona Republicans, introduced the legislation in the Senate.

“The Grand Canyon is a treasure, so if I believed that uranium mining in parts of northern Arizona posed a threat to the Canyon, I would not support it,” Flake said today.

National Mining Association President and CEO Hal Quinn said the decision, “…ignores the obvious need for high-wage employment and energy security, as well as the national interest in deriving more of our domestic mineral needs from reserves located on federal lands.”

Quinn maintains that the withdrawal “…deprives the United States of energy and minerals critically important to its economy and does so without compelling scientific evidence that is necessary for such a far-reaching measure.”

“The administration’s announcement is not supported by the findings of its own impact analysis, which provided no evidence to justify a massive withdrawal of land outside the Grand Canyon National Park,” said Quinn. “The department’s environmental impact statement concluded future mining activity is unlikely to have significant impacts on the park, the surrounding environment or on allied tourism. These are among the reasons the department’s expert advisory council in Arizona opposed the withdrawal.”

However, the agency’s Final Environmental Impact Statement does note adverse impacts if uranium mining were to be permitted on the million acres at issue in this decision. “There would be direct impacts on lands possessing or managed to maintain wilderness characteristics,” says the FEIS, which also states, “mining activities could cause direct impacts to historic and prehistoric sites … in some cases, mitigation is not possible…”

Arizona Congressman Raul Grijalva with representatives of local tribes in Grand Canyon National Park as Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announces a six-month moratorium on uranium mining claims in the area, June 20, 2011. (Photo courtesy National Park Service)

The FEIS also notes other adverse impacts on: views of Grand Canyon National Park, air quality, aquatic and terrestrial habitats, vegetation and water resources.

“The increase in the levels of uranium and its decay constituents in water and soil is anticipated to be minor and long term under all alternatives,” the FEIS states. The decision allows for monitoring to determine impact of uranium mining on the Colorado River watershed.

Substantive comments, including those on the economic impact discussion, were addressed in the Final Environmental Impact Statement, released on October 27, 2011 for a final 30-day review period.

The Navajo Nation is pleased with the withdrawal. “The Navajo Nation is against uranium mining and has banned uranium mining since 2005 because of the health issues related to mining the radioactive material,” Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly said today.

“I support the announcement because of what we have experienced as Navajo people. We have lost the quality of life for many of our Navajo people who worked in the mines including their families and affected communities,” said Shelly. “Secretary Salazar’s decision protects the water and land, but most importantly, the health of the people.”

The withdrawal lessens the likelihood that another radioactive spill could occur in the area. In 1979, United Nuclear Corporation’s Church Rock uranium mill tailings disposal pond in New Mexico breached its dam. Over 1,000 tons of radioactive mill waste and millions of gallons of mine effluent flowed into the Puerco River, and the contaminants traveled 80 miles downstream to Navajo County, Arizona.

Local residents not immediately aware of the radioactive danger used river water for irrigation and livestock. In terms of the amount of radiation released, the accident was comparable in magnitude to the Three Mile Island accident of the same year in Pennsylvania.

The site is yet to be completely cleaned up and is on the U.S. EPA’s Superfund list. In 2008, Congress authorized a five-year plan for cleanup of contaminated uranium sites on the Navajo reservation. There are 520 open abandoned uranium mines across the vast reservation.

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