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Interior Secretary Places Temporary Ban on Mining Near Grand Canyon

By July 21, 2009

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A showdown worthy of the Old West is shaping up near the Grand Canyon, with injunction-toting environmentalists on one side and powerful mining interests on the other—and the U.S. government is standing right in the middle.

U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on Monday announced that his agency will temporarily prohibit the filing of new mining claims on approximately 1 million acres of public lands surrounding the Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona. The action reverses a Bush-era decision to open the land around the park to hard rock mining, including uranium mining.

Currently, there are roughly 10,000 existing mining claims on Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service lands near the Grand Canyon—for all types of hard-rock exploration. Some 1,100 uranium mining claims are within five miles of Grand Canyon National Park. Uranium mining can be very lucrative, but many conservationists worry about the potential effect of the toxic metal on water, wildlife, and cultural and archaeology resources of the Grand Canyon and its surrounding area.

The Interior Department is placing the land off limits for two years so the agency can study the environmental effects of hard-rock mining and exploration on the area and determine whether to ban mining activity permanently. The department could extend the mining ban for up to 20 years. Meanwhile, the land can still be leased for other types of mining and for geothermal projects, according to a notice published in the Federal Register.

Salazar's announcement came one day before the start of a congressional hearing on a bill, sponsored by U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), that would permanently ban new mining claims and exploration of existing claims on more than 1 million acres of federal land north and south of the Grand Canyon. Salazar's action will provide temporary protections while the legislation is pending.

Salazar's announcement immediately drew fire from the mining industry, whose representatives said current laws and regulations are sufficient to protect the environment from the potentially damaging effects of mining—a position also supported by Arizona's two Republican senators, John McCain and Jon Kyl. National Mining Association Vice President Luke Popovich even invoked the recession and the near double-digit jobless rate as justification enough to open public lands to uranium and other hard rock mining.

"So this decision appears on its face to be wholly unjustified and even dumbfounding in view of the near 10 percent jobless rate," Popovich told the Associated Press.

Environmentalists cheered the decision, however, and praised Salazar for protecting the Grand Canyon, which Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope called "one of our most iconic national treasures."

"Uranium mining threatens to damage wildlife habitat, industrialize public lands, and contaminate the water that feeds regional wells, springs, and the Colorado River, which provides drinking water for millions of people," Pope said. "The next step is to permanently protect these important lands and waterways by passing legislation to ban future uranium claims and exploration."

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