Nineteenth-century explorer John Wesley Powell wrote that "the wonders of the Grand Canyon cannot be adequately represented in symbols of speech, nor by speech itself. The resources of the graphic art are taxed beyond their powers in attempting to portray its features. Language and illustration combined must fail."
You would think that the federal government would have the power to protect a place so extraordinary that it leaves visitors at a loss for words. But under the 1872 Mining Law, the Forest Service said its hands were tied when it approved uranium mining operations a stone's throw from this breathtaking national treasure.
Although the news only recently came to light, the Forest Service last December granted permission to the foreign-owned Vane Minerals company to explore for uranium within three miles of the canyon. Exploration, of course, is intended to lead to production, and production, as we've seen over and over again in the West, leads to massive environmental and toxic cleanup problems that can spread for miles and persist for centuries.
The 1872 General Mining Act puts mining for uranium, gold and other hardrock minerals above all other uses of public land - even if it borders one of our most popular national parks. In fact, the decision didn't even require serious environmental review.
This regrettable picture amply demonstrates why Congress must modernize this frontier-era law, which still allows mining companies to take outright ownership of public land at 1872 prices, gives them priority over other users and then lets mine operators off the hook for most of the cleanup. And unlike coal and oil and gas companies, the metal mining industry doesn't pay the American taxpayers one nickel for the value of the minerals it extracts.
Congress needs to act quickly. Our analysis of federal government data indicates that over the last six months, new claims within five miles of the Grand Canyon's borders have jumped 40 percent. In the last three years, the dramatic rise in both gold and uranium prices has spurred more than 1,000 new mining claims in the Kaibab National Forest, near the canyon's popular south rim.
The Vane Minerals incident has alarmed watchdog groups like the Grand Canyon Trust, which believes the current uranium boom poses one of the greatest threats to the Grand Canyon National Park in its history. They're joined by Cococino County officials and leaders from the nearby Navajo Reservation, concerned by what this could mean to the canyon, and also by the public health implications of radioactive waste and downstream water contamination.
Last fall, the U.S. House of Representatives took an important first step, passing bipartisan legislation that would reform the 135-year-old statute. The measure would end the outright sale of public lands for five dollars an acre (or less) and protect national parks, national forest roadless areas and other treasured lands from mineral development.
It would also impose an 8 percent royalty on metals taken from new mines and 4 percent on existing mines, figures on the low end of what the energy companies have paid for years. The monies collected would be used to help clean up the hundreds of thousands of abandoned mines that litter the landscape. The bill, championed by Rep. Nick Rahall, would give federal agencies like the Forest Service the clout to say no to metal mining when it would cause undue degradation of land and natural resources.
The U.S. Senate has yet to act on this key legislation, although its Energy and Natural Resources Committee has started the ball rolling by holding several hearings on the issue. Unfortunately, allies of the mining industry are trying to derail the House effort by promoting a weak version of the bill that avoids real reform by jettisoning critical environmental protections.
It is crucial that the Senate adopt a strong package that will protect parks and wildlife, western watersheds and local communities. There is something decidedly wrong about a law that gives an automatic green light to uranium mining even where it's located within a stone's throw of one of the nation's greatest treasures.
Congress needs to reform the 1872 General Mining Act before the 19th century law hands the country some very real 21st century problems.
Jane Danowitz directs The Pew Charitable Trusts Campaign for Responsible Mining, 1200 18th Street NW, Suite 500, Washington, D.C.; e-mail: jdanowitzpewtrusts.org. Richard Wiles is executive director of Environmental Working Group, 1436 U Street NW, Suite 100, Washington, D.C. 20009; e-mail: richardewg.org.
This article also appeared in the Austin Statesman.