WASHINGTON — New uranium mining claims on 1 million acres around the Grand Canyon will be blocked for 20 years under a decision the Bureau of Land Management announced Wednesday.
The announcement confirmed that the Obama administration was proceeding with a plan that Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced in July and is expected to make final in 30 days. The decision withdraws a right to Western public lands that mining companies otherwise would have under the 1872 Mining Law
Sen. John McCain of Arizona and other Republican lawmakers proposed legislation earlier this month that would prevent the administration from proceeding with the withdrawal. They said then that there was no evidence that uranium mining would harm the Grand Canyon watershed, and that banning new claims would cost hundreds of jobs.
BLM director Bob Abbey said Wednesday that banning new mining claims was necessary to give time to better understand the environmental impacts of uranium mining in the area.
""The Grand Canyon is an iconic place for all Americans and visitors from around the world," Abbey said in a statement. "Uranium remains an important part of our nation's comprehensive energy resources, but it is appropriate to pause, identify what the predicted level of mining and its impacts on the Grand Canyon would be, and decide what level of risk is acceptable to take with this national treasure."
The decision prevents only new mining claims. Mines that already have been approved would continue to operate, and new mines could be approved on claims that already exist.
The nation's 139-year-old mining law gives companies automatic access to most public land in the West and allows them to mine for uranium, gold and other minerals without paying royalties.
"We encourage the Obama administration to work with Congress now to reform the 1872 Mining Law so that other national treasures are also protected," said Jane Danowitz, U.S. public lands director for the Pew Environment Group.
Also on Wednesday, Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., sent letters to 14 oil, gas, coal and hard-rock mining companies asking for information by Dec. 15 about their profits from activities on federally leased lands and for the amounts of any royalties and fees they paid.
Grijalva and Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., earlier asked the Government Accountability Office to study the profits and royalty returns from companies that use federal property. The study is expected to be finished next summer.
Grijalva spokesman Adam Sarvana said the information-gathering was the first step toward figuring out how high the royalties should be set.
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