06/24/2011 - Millions of years ago, seeping groundwater created cavities in the rock below the northern Arizona desert, which eventually collapsed under the weight of the stone above. The groundwater kept flowing, depositing minerals into the resulting formations, known as Breccia pipes. One of these minerals was uranium, the fuel that America’s nuclear power plants consume, making the area home to some of the highest-grade extractable uranium ore in America — and very attractive to mining companies. The Pew Environment Group reports that mining claims in a 1 million-acre zone jumped from 320 in 2004 to 3,200 in 2006, with 2,900 additional claims filed in 2007.
But that 1 million acres isn’t just any patch of desert; it’s within miles of the Grand Canyon. After pressure from environmentalists, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar put a temporary moratorium on new claims there in 2009, and on Monday he announced that he will recommend a 20-year ban this year. Existing claims might still turn into full-fledged mines, but the claims bonanza is over.
Mining groups blasted the decision, saying the government didn’t have sufficient scientific basis for it. A 2010 study from the U.S. Geological Survey indicated that past uranium mining near the Grand Canyon has resulted in limited contamination to surface water and soils.
Read the full opinion editorial, In Arizona, Uranium Resources Are Worth a Careful Look, on The Washington Post's Web site.