Dear EarthTalk: Are plans to mine uranium near the Grand Canyon, as proposed by the Bush administration in 2008, still underway?
— Denton Chase, Half Moon Bay, Calif.
The Obama administration has been quick to overturn several anti-environmental moves ushered in during the 11th hour of George W. Bush’s presidency, but halting uranium exploration and mining near the Grand Canyon has not been one of them.
Last fall, Bush’s Secretary of the Interior, Dirk Kempthorne, circumvented a prohibition on mining activities by authorizing uranium exploration within a million acre buffer zone around Grand Canyon National Park. Recent spikes in the price of uranium — perhaps due to renewed interest in nuclear power as an alternative to fossil fuels as global warming makes its presence felt — have led to a surge in applications for new uranium mining permits on otherwise protected federal lands.
Green groups fear that once mining starts near the Grand Canyon, similar destructive plans will also get the green light in and around other protected areas, including Arches National Park, Capitol Reef National Park, Canyonlands National Park and the proposed Dolores River Canyon wilderness area.
When Kempthorne first proposed opening up the land to uranium mining, several concerned parties — including dozens of elected officials, public utilities and Native American tribes — complained about potential threats to surface and ground water from such activities. They fear that uranium mining in the area could lead to the release of radioactivity and heavy metals like selenium into the Colorado River and its watershed, including within Grand Canyon National Park.
In lieu of federal action on the issue, green groups have taken up the cause. Some, like the Pew Environment Group, are lobbying President Obama to overturn the mining allowances; others are working the judicial angle. Three organizations — the Center for Biological Diversity, Grand Canyon Trust and Sierra Club — filed suit in federal court in October 2008 to block the Bureau of Land Management, which manages the area, from allowing uranium mining in what they consider risky and nationally significant areas. “This is an agency in dire need of leadership from the new administration,” says Taylor McKinnon, public lands program director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The Grand Canyon deserves it.”
The battle over uranium mining near the Grand Canyon sheds light on an even larger issue: the 1872 Mining Law, enacted under President Ulysses S. Grant and still in effect today. Long a bone of contention along partisan lines, the law has so far opened up of some 350 million acres of public land across the western U.S. to virtually unchecked mining. Green groups maintain that the law, put in place to encourage westward expansion, no longer makes sense in the modern era of dwindling natural resources.
“Current federal policy that allows the mining industry to operate next to America’s national icons and against the will of local communities must be changed,” said Jane Danowitz, Pew’s U.S. public lands program director. “It’s time to modernize the nation’s 1872 mining law.”
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