WASHINGTON — A moratorium on new uranium mining around the Grand Canyon expires in six weeks, and the Interior Department is under pressure from conservation groups and mining companies over what to do about it.
Conservation groups want to stop more uranium mining near the majestic Grand Canyon, a part of the American landscape that's been protected since the late 19th century and is known worldwide for its stunning vistas. Uranium mining companies already have rights on public lands in the area that the decision wouldn't affect. They're eager to expand to feed a growing demand for fuel for nuclear power in many parts of the world.
The decision will come just after Germany announced plans to close its nuclear plants and shift to more renewable energy sources. Elsewhere, however, the use of nuclear power is growing, and the price of uranium has risen in recent years. Opponents of expanded mining say the uranium wouldn't necessarily boost American energy independence because an expansion of the nuclear industry has been blocked by high prices and because many of the companies that want to mine near the canyon are foreign companies that would export the uranium.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has a July 21 deadline, when the two-year moratorium he imposed on new uranium mining on 1 million acres around Grand Canyon National Park expires. He must decide whether to ban new uranium mining there for 20 years or open up new mining on all or part of it. If he does nothing, the whole area would open again to new claims. Under an 1872 law, companies that can show valid claims have a right to mine on public land.
Conservation groups are pressing the administration to halt the mining. Mining companies are pushing it to lift the moratorium, arguing that there's no proof of environmental damage from uranium contamination.
At stake are dozens of claims that could be validated and grandfathered in, said Roger Clark, the air and energy director of the Grand Canyon Trust. Under the 1872 law, "once they have valid claims, that's private property and really there's no stopping it," he said.
An advertisement titled "Don't undermine the Grand Canyon" is scheduled this week in The New York Times that includes a letter from 50 public figures, including actors Robert Redford and Edward Norton, Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon and biologist Thomas Lovejoy, who drew attention to tropical deforestation in the 1970s and has advised U.S. administrations since Ronald Reagan's.
The letter, addressed to President Barack Obama, urges him to extend the moratorium on the entire area for 20 years. The ad was paid for by the Pew Environment Group.
Pew recently reported that the number of claims increased by 2,000 percent from 2005 to 2010 and that hundreds of those claims are controlled by foreign interests, including Russia's state-owned nuclear energy company and a state-owned South Korean utility.
"What hangs in the balance is not just the Grand Canyon's splendor for future generations, but important wildlife habitat and the health of the Colorado River, which provides drinking water to millions," the newspaper ad says.
One concern of Pew and other groups that oppose expanded uranium claims is the possibility that the Interior Department could try a stopgap measure, such as offering a new short-term moratorium with a new rationale.
"If there's any environmental protection the administration should stand for, it's protecting the Grand Canyon," said Jane Danowitz, the Pew Environment Group's director of U.S. public lands policy.
Others said they'd heard rumors that the administration somehow would postpone a decision.
Ron Hochstein, the CEO of Denison Mines, a Canadian company with three operations near the Grand Canyon that already have permits and wouldn't be affected by the decision, said an environmental impact statement showed there'd be no impact from mining and therefore the government should open the area to new claims. Denison mines uranium in Arizona and Utah.
The National Mining Association opposes any moratorium on new mining claims near the Grand Canyon. In official comments, it said that making the lands around the park off limits to new claims would be an "overreaching effort to protect the (Grand Canyon National Park) from vague and unsubstantiated threats outside the park boundaries."
Conservation groups, however, challenge the conclusions of the draft environmental impact statement, saying that, among other things, it failed to calculate a worst-case scenario.
Hochstein said he didn't expect a decision soon. He said it was possible that the Interior Department might try to get another temporary moratorium because it hadn't finished the final version of the environmental impact statement.
Dennis Godfrey, a spokesman at the department's Bureau of Land Management office in Arizona, said his agency had to evaluate 294,000 comments and wasn't finished yet. He said he didn't know when a decision was likely.
Of particular concern to environmental groups are the underground aquifers that feed seeps and springs in the Grand Canyon.
There's no way to guarantee that uranium mining wouldn't contaminate the aquifers, and if that happened it would be impossible to clean up, said Taylor McKinnon, public lands campaigns director for the Center for Biological Diversity, another group that's pushing to stop new uranium claims.
"The question at hand is really one of risk," McKinnon said. "Are we willing to risk the aquifers that provide the vast majority of the Grand Canyon's surface water?"
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