WASHINGTON, June 25 – A House committee today exercised rarely used emergency powers to protect the Grand Canyon from a surge in uranium mining claims near the canyon rim.
In a 20 to 2 vote with the minority walking out in protest, the House Natural Resources Committee passed a binding resolution by Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) forcing Interior Sec. Dirk Kempthorne to ban new mining claims on approximately 1 million acres adjacent to Grand Canyon National Park. The resolution, which has the force of law, uses the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 to direct Kempthorne to withdraw the land from mining activity.
Between January 2003 and January 2008, the number of claims within 5 miles of Grand Canyon National Park increased from 10 to more than 1,100, according to Bureau of Land Management data compiled by the Environmental Working Group (EWG). Google maps of the claims are available at www.ewg.org/reports/grandcanyon.
Most, if not all, of the claims are for uranium, sparked by a surge in uranium prices linked to renewed interest in nuclear power. In December 2007, the Forest Service issued a permit to a British company to drill for uranium as close as 2 miles from the Park, citing the government’s inability to prevent the action under the 1872 Mining Law.
Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and the Southern Nevada Water Authority have all written to Kempthorne with concerns about the surge of claims near the Canyon and the effect uranium mining might have on Colorado River drinking water. The Colorado, which flows through the Canyon, provides water for 25 million people including residents of Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Phoenix and San Diego.
“This emergency action will help prevent uranium mining from harming the Grand Canyon and polluting drinking water for millions,” said Dusty Horwitt, Senior Public Lands Analyst at EWG. “The Senate should stop stalling and reform the 1872 Mining Law so that all Western public lands have full protection.”
A mining reform bill that would protect the Grand Canyon passed the House in late 2007, but has been stalled in the Senate. On Monday, three more mining-state governors – Bill Richardson of New Mexico, Christine Gregoire of Washington and Ted Kulongski of Oregon, all Democrats – sent a letter to the leadership of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, saying the mining law was a relic of frontier-era America and urging action.
Congress last invoked the Land Policy and Management Act in 1983, when the House Interior and Insular Affairs Committee required then-Interior Sec. James Watt to block new coal leases on federal land in Montana and North Dakota.
Watt refused to comply with the resolution and issued the leases, but a federal court granted a preliminary injunction, forcing Watt to abide by the committee’s action. The federal court found that Interior’s own regulations mirrored the provision in the land management act and the Department was bound to follow them. Those regulations (43 CFR 2310.5) are still on the books.
The House resolution will not impact valid claims already staked; companies could still mine these claims even if their activities might threaten the Canyon or the Colorado River.
EWG is a nonprofit research organization based in Washington, DC that uses the power of information to protect human health and the environment.