Feds Ban New Uranium Mining Near Grand Canyon

January 10, 2012

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. -- The Obama Administration is imposing a 20-year moratorium on mining in and around the Grand Canyon. It says the ban on development will protect water supplies from potential contamination from uranium and other metals. But some Republicans say the move will hurt job creation and energy independence.

After years of debate and several short-term bans, this announcement focused on the long term.

It just so happens that Grand Canyon National Park is surrounded by some of the richest uranium veins in the country. And when the price for uranium shot up a few years ago, mining companies staked thousands of claims on the land surrounding this national treasure.

Republican lawmakers have been pressuring the Obama Administration to allow these claims to go forward. But on Monday, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said no.

"It is the right thing to do by way of protecting the Grand Canyon, the Colorado River and the millions of Americans who live and rely on the waters of that great basin," Salazar said.

The secretary noted that seven Southwestern states and millions of people depend on the Colorado River Basin. Much of the winter vegetable supply for the rest of the country comes from Southern California’s Imperial Valley, which depends on river water to irrigate crops.

Courtesy Grand Canyon Trust.
A map showing the location of uranium mining near the Grand Canyon.

The moratorium will allow for further study of the aquifer. Scientists say they want to look into potential harm that can come from faults, fractures and sink holes around those abundant uranium veins.

Minerals consultant Michael Berry says the U.S. currently has to import most of its uranium from Russia to fuel nuclear power plants. He insists the process of extracting these pipes of uranium is contained and clean.

"It seems silly (to import uranium) when the pipes on the northern Arizona strip...they’re probably some of the highest grade pipes in the country," Berry said. "There really isn’t any evidence that shows the mining of the pipes with today’s technology has any impact. I think it’s too bad. I think it’s a missed opportunity for the country to be honest."

For environmental groups, this announcement is a big win in a very long fight. Roger Clark is air and energy quality director for the Grand Canyon Trust.

"No matter what the uranium industry says, there’s no guarantee the Grand Canyon would be safe from contamination," Clark said. "On the surface and down deep in the ground water, we already have evidence of contamination from former mines."

One already operating mine a few miles outside the park is grandfathered in under this moratorium, as are many other existing claims. The ban affects new and future minerals exploration.

Because of that, environmentalists are pushing for legislation that would strengthen and extend the moratorium indefinitely.