Within weeks, the Obama administration is due to announce whether it will continue a ban on new mining claims on federal land surrounding Grand Canyon National Park. By the close of the public comment period, the nation's top conservation leaders, scientists, water officials and nearly 300,000 Americans called on the administration to extend for 20 years a 1 million acre buffer to safeguard one of the world's most iconic parks and a major water source for the West.
In response to a flurry of new uranium claims near the Grand Canyon, U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar issued a temporary halt in 2009 to claims on national forest and other public land surrounding the park. That moratorium will expire in July. The administration has sought comment on four alternatives that would apply a 20-year ban under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act. The proposals range from extending the current moratorium, to lifting the ban on the entire area. If the administration fails to issue a decision by the July 22 deadline, claim-staking could resume immediately.
“With most of our public lands in the West open to mining under the nation's antiquated 19th century mining law, there is no reason why such harmful industrial activity should be allowed around this natural landmark,” said a letter from the nation's 13 largest conservation groups (PDF) to the Obama administration today.
A report released last month 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 and South Korea's state-owned utility.
Officials from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and the Southern Nevada Water Authority have pressed to limit new uranium mining along the Grand Canyon's Colorado River watershed, which provides drinking water for 25 million people. The outdoor industry has weighed in as well, as visitation to the Grand Canyon generates $687 million annually in revenue and contributes to the creation of more than 12,000 full-time jobs, according to a 2005 Northern Arizona University study (PDF).
A letter from 63 U.S. Representatives (PDF) sent today to Secretary of Interior Ken 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… . [U]ranium could also degrade the downstream water supply, relied on by millions of Americans.”
The claims around the Grand Canyon 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 approximately $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 has identified the hardrock mining industry as the producer of more toxic waste than any other industry, and EPA cites more than $2 billion in federal spending over the past decade on mine cleanup.
“The clock is ticking, and we're looking to the Obama administration to safeguard this national landmark from new mining around its borders,” said Jane Danowitz, the Pew Environment Group's director of U.S. public lands. “We urge the administration to stand by its initial recommendation and give the Grand Canyon the full protection it deserves.”
For more information, read Pew's comments on the Northern Arizona Proposed Withdrawal Draft EIS (PDF).