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20-year ban planned on new Grand Canyon uranium mining

The Obama administration announces the proposed ban for 1 million acres of land bordering the Grand Canyon, an area where uranium mining claims have spiked 2,000% in the last seven years.

June 21, 2011|By Neela Banerjee, Washington Bureau
  • Environmentalists are concerned that uranium mining in land around the Grand Canyon could lead to contamination of the Colorado River.
Environmentalists are concerned that uranium mining in land around the… (Taylor McKinnon Center…)

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration announced Monday that it intends to place a 20-year ban on mining 1 million acres of land bordering the Grand Canyon, an area where uranium mining claims have spiked 2,000% in the last seven years.

The ban would strengthen a moratorium on new mining claims and activity, which the administration placed on Grand Canyon border lands two years ago in response to the jump in uranium stakes. Interior Department officials said the agency initially would extend the current moratorium another six months, until December, in order to complete the steps necessary to establish the 20-year ban. Mines currently in operation would not be affected.

Environmentalists, some lawmakers and water utilities serving metropolitan areas in the southwest, including Los Angeles, said the decision would protect the critical Colorado River watershed from possible contamination from uranium mining and would prevent the Grand Canyon panorama from being gradually industrialized.

"This a big important step because we know there are rich claims out here that that mining industry would have gone after quickly," said Roger Clark, air and energy program director for the Grand Canyon Trust, a Flagstaff, Ariz., environmental group. "Mining would have affected the watershed, disturbed critical wildlife habitat, industrialized the perimeter of the Grand Canyon. 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 industry 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," said Carol Raulston, a spokeswoman for the National Mining Assn., in an email.

Because Interior Secretary Ken Salazar will issue a final decision on the moratorium in the fall, there is a small chance the 1 million-acre ban could be scaled back. The mining association said it had not yet made a decision whether to challenge the prohibition in court.

Salazar issued the current two-year moratorium, set to expire on July 20, because of concerns about the possible environmental and health impacts of uranium mining near the Grand Canyon, Clark said.

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 past seven years, mining companies, many of them foreign firms, have filed claims to the rights to copper, gold, uranium and other metals on land around Mt. Rushmore, Joshua Tree National Park and other famous refuges at an increased rate 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 out rights to federal lands for mining without a competitive bid and to extract resources without paying royalties.

neela.banerjee@latimes.com

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