Interior calls ‘time out’ on mining

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Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced Monday that he will place a two-year hold on the filing of new uranium and other hard-rock mining permits on 1 million acres near the Grand Canyon, prompting charges from mining groups of compromising U.S. energy security and of encouraging more dangerous mining abroad.

Mr. Salazar said the department would spend those two years studying whether the lands should be withdrawn on a more extensive basis from new mining claims in order to protect the watershed, species and plants from possible contamination. Mining exploration or extraction that has already been approved for permitting would not be affected by either the two-year moratorium or a permanent ban, he said.

“I am calling a two-year ‘time out’ from all new mining claims in the Arizona Strip near the Grand Canyon because we have a responsibility to ensure we are developing our nation’s resources in a way that protects local communities, treasured landscapes and our watersheds,” Mr. Salazar said.

Mining near the Grand Canyon National Park has long been controversial because of the region’s iconic status and its significance among some Indian tribes as a sacred site. At the same time, the area is known for its substantial deposits of uranium, an element with important military and commercial uses, including as fuel for nuclear-power plants.

Luke Popovich, spokesman for the National Mining Association, said he saw “no justification whatsoever” for the two-year ban, which he called a “de facto land withdrawal.”

“It certainly doesn’t do anything to strengthen our economy or energy security by taking these rich uranium deposits off the table,” Mr. Popovich said. “It seems that both of the administration’s goals were taken off the table in this one ruling.”

He cited a 1999 study by the National Academy of Sciences concluding that regulations governing hard-rock mining had been effective in protecting the environment. About five years ago, those rules were strengthened even further, he said.

“These are small mines, like bore holes. They’re very discrete,” Mr. Popovich said. “They’re not like coal or copper, where you have these big holes.”

Grand Canyon mining had recently been the subject of a feud between House Democrats and the George W. Bush administration. Last year, the House Resources Committee attempted to stop any new claims for up to three years by passing a rarely used emergency resolution.

Then-Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne refused to acknowledge the resolution and continued to allow the approval of new permits, prompting a lawsuit from a coalition of environmental groups.

Richard Mayol, spokesman for the Grand Canyon Trust in Flagstaff, Ariz., one of coalition partners, said his organization was “quite happy” with the Interior Department’s change of direction and that settlement talks would begin immediately.

“We’d been working very hard to see these lands withdrawn by the previous administration,” Mr. Mayol said. “Once the new administration came in, we felt our chances were a little better.”

Rep. Raul M. Grijalva, the Arizona Democrat who had led the fight against mining in and around the Grand Canyon National Park, hailed the decision and called on Congress to make the ban permanent.

“The Grand Canyon is too important to waste, and the Obama administration recognizes that,” Mr. Grijalva said. “Whether we talk about its significance to Arizona’s economy, the Grand Canyon watershed or future generations of Americans, this is a treasure that we cannot risk contaminating.”

His subcommittee is slated to hold a hearing Tuesday on the Grand Canyon Watersheds Protection Act of 2009, which would cordon off the 1 million acres from future mining claims in perpetuity.

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