Uranium prices have caused sharp increases in new uranium mining claims, exploration, and permitting to reopen old mines on public lands surrounding Grand Canyon National Park. Uranium development threatens to damage wildlife habitat, industrialize iconic wildlands, and contaminate surface water and groundwater feeding regional water wells, seeps, springs and the Colorado River - prompting concerns from former Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the Southern Nevada Water Authority, the Arizona Game and Fish Department, the Navajo, Hopi, Havasupai, Hualapai, and Kaibab Paiute tribes, Coconino County officials, and independent geologists.
"Secretary Salazar's decision secures a much-needed, but temporary respite from thousands of new uranium claims around the Grand Canyon," said Grand Canyon Trust spokesman Roger Clark. "For permanent protection, Congress now needs to pass the Grand Canyon Watersheds Protection Act."
This weekâ€™s order aligns the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management direction with the 25 June 2008 resolution by the House Committee on Natural Resources, which directed the secretary of the interior to enact an "emergency withdrawal," banning new claims and exploration across the 1 million acres for three years. The Center for Biological Diversity, Grand Canyon Trust, and Sierra Club filed suit against the Department of the Interior and Bureau of Land Management in September 2008 for authorizing uranium exploration in violation of the withdrawal. The groups are evaluating how today's action affects that pending litigation.
"We are pleased to see Secretary Salazar take this action to protect the lands around Grand Canyon and the Colorado River, which provides the drinking water for millions of people downstream," said Sandy Bahr, chapter director for the Sierra Club's Grand Canyon Chapter. "Our waters and special places such as Grand Canyon deserve strong protections."
The administration's order comes as Congress considers legislative mining reforms. Tomorrow the Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests And Public Lands will hear testimony on H.R.644, the Grand Canyon Watersheds Protection Act of 2009, introduced by Representative RaÃºl Grijalva, D-Ariz, that would permanently ban exploration and new claims on about 1 million acres of public lands bordering Grand Canyon. Last week the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources heard testimony on legislation to reform the antiquated 1872 mining law. The Environmental Protection Agency in that hearing noted that hard-rock mining has impacted 40 percent of all western watersheds and generates 28 percent of the toxic pollution in the United States.
"Grand Canyon's uranium problem exemplifies the need for national mining law reform," said Taylor McKinnon, public lands campaigns director at the Center for Biological Diversity. "America deserves a mining law that holds our parks, watersheds and wildlife above - rather than hostage to - mining industry profits."
State air and water permitting has begun to open three existing mines in the area covered by this week's order but will not be limited by it. All three mines are owned by Denison Mines, a Canadian firm with Korean ties. Federal environmental approvals for all three mines are outdated and were completed in the 1980s. The Havasupai tribe will host a rally this weekend near Grand Canyon's south rim in protest of one of those mines, the Canyon mine, located on the Kaibab National Forest and traditional tribal lands.