U.S. bans new Grand Canyon uranium-mining claims
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced Monday a final decision to impose a 20-year ban on new mining claims on 1 million acres surrounding the Grand Canyon, an area where uranium mining stakes have spiked 2,000% in the last seven years.
The ban "is the right approach for this priceless American landscape," Salazar said. "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."
Environmentalists and some lawmakers praised the decision, saying it would protect the critical Colorado River watershed from possible contamination from uranium mining and would prevent the Grand Canyon panorama from being gradually industrialized. The Obama administration first indicated last June its intention to sequester the acreage from mining. Mines currently in operation would not be affected.
"People that hunt, fish and drink the water here are concerned about the risks of mining here," said Arizona Wildlife Federation board member Ben Alteneder. "Uranium has a toxic legacy. Why wouldn't we want Secretary Salazar to take precautions to protect our families and local wildlife?"
The mining industry and its congressional supporters warned that removing such a vast swath of land from industry risked jobs and economic growth.
"Safe and responsible mining of this land could have produced thousands of high paying, family wage mining jobs," Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, said in a statement. "The United States is already 90% dependent on foreign sources of uranium and this decision only exacerbates our foreign dependence by locking up our own clean energy resources."
The moratorium builds on a 2 /1/2-year hiatus on mining claims Salazar imposed in 2008 in response to the rise of mining claims along the edge of the Grand Canyon National Park.
Mining claims around the Grand Canyon are among the thousands filed by companies along the borders of numerous national parks and wilderness areas. In the last seven years, mining companies, many of them foreign firms, have filed claims to the rights to copper, gold, uranium and other metals on federal land around Mt. Rushmore, Joshua Tree National Park and other famous refuges at an increased rate because of rising global prices, according to a 2011 report by the Pew Environment Group.
Critics say an outmoded 1872 law is driving the increase in claims in such sensitive places. The law allows corporations to stake out rights to federal lands for mining without a competitive bid and to extract resources without paying royalties.
-- Neela Banerjee in Washington
Photo: The Colorado River cuts through Grand Canyon National Park. Credit: Anacleto Rapping / Los Angeles Times