Visitors view the Grand Canyon, where uranium mining claims have jumped… (Anne Cusack, Los Angeles…)
Reporting from Washington — The Obama administration said it intended to place a 20-year ban on new mining claims on 1 million acres of land bordering the Grand Canyon, moving to protect an area that is a crucial water supply to the Southwest and where uranium mining claims have jumped 2,000% over the last seven years.
The ban would extend a two-year moratorium established in 2009 but set to expire July 20. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said Monday that the agency would extend it until December to allow time to complete the steps needed to enact the 20-year ban. Mines currently operating would be able to continue working.
Salazar emphasized the need to protect the Colorado River watershed from possible uranium contamination from mining projects. The river provides drinking water to several major southwestern metropolitan areas, including 19 million people in Southern California. "What drives us first is protecting the arteries of life blood, of water," in the area, Salazar said.
Environmentalists said the decision would keep the Grand Canyon panorama from being gradually industrialized.
"This is a big, important step because we know there are rich claims out here that the mining industry would have gone after quickly," said Roger Clark, air and energy program director for the Grand Canyon Trust, a Flagstaff, Ariz.-based environmental group.
"Mining would have affected the watershed, disturbed critical wildlife habitat, industrialized the perimeter of the Grand Canyon," Clark added. "It's kind of like locating a meatpacking house next to the Vatican: It's an incompatible use of the land."
The mining industry and its congressional supporters warned that removing such a vast swath of land from industrial development risked jobs and economic growth. The decision "is scientifically unsupportable and sets a troublesome precedent as we struggle to create jobs and meet more of our future energy needs with domestic fuels," Carol Raulston, a spokeswoman for the National Mining Assn., said in an email.
Salazar and supporters of the moratorium, including several Arizona communities, said it would not halt work at the eight existing mines in the area or uranium mining elsewhere in the Southwest.
Salazar pointed out that tourism at the Grand Canyon also creates jobs and generates about $3.5 billion annually in local economic activity.
Because the government will not issue a final decision on the moratorium until the fall, there is a small chance the 1-million-acre ban could be scaled back. The mining association said it had not yet decided whether to challenge the prohibition in court.
Mining claims around the Grand Canyon are among the thousands that companies hold along the borders of numerous national parks and wilderness areas. In the last seven years, mining companies, many of them foreign-owned, have filed claims at a rapid rate to the rights to copper, gold, uranium and other metals on land around Mt. Rushmore, Joshua Tree National Park and other famous refuges because of rising global prices, according to a recent 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 rights to federal lands for mining without a competitive bid and to extract resources without paying royalties.
Because of the law, federal agencies often think they cannot turn down a valid mining claim or permits to mine. Land withdrawals are among the few tools the government has to limit mining on federal lands.