Chasm wide on Grand Canyon uranium mining

GOP tries to stop moratorium

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The Grand Canyon is 277 miles long, 18 miles wide and a mile deep, which is roughly the size of the gap between the Obama administration and Western Republicans on the issue of uranium mining in Northern Arizona.

Western Republicans are fighting to stop Interior Secretary Ken Salazar from slapping a 20-year moratorium on any new mining claims for yellowcake uranium on 1.1 million acres of land around the Grand Canyon National Park. A two-year ban instated in 2009 is scheduled to expire in December.

A House Natural Resources subcommittee held a hearing Thursday on the Republican-sponsored Northern Arizona Mining Continuity Act of 2011, which would block the effort to ban uranium mining in the region.

Robert Abbey, director of the Bureau of Land Management, said at the hearing that the area is too sensitive to accommodate expanded mining. The Colorado River, which runs through the canyon, delivers water to 26 million people in seven states, raising the stakes for any contamination that might result from a mining mishap.

He said that a U.S. Geological Survey report evaluated 1,014 water samples from 428 sites in the region and found that about 70 sites had contamination levels exceeding the primary or secondary maximum for some elements, including uranium. At the same time, he acknowledged that the data was “sparse” and “often limited.”

“There are few places in the country where the resource management challenges are more difficult or the stakes greater than in the area surrounding the Grand Canyon,” Mr. Abbey said in his testimony.

A surge in uranium prices has caused mining claims in the region to jump from about 100 in 2003 to almost 9,000 in 2010. Currently there are 11 uranium mines operate in the proposed region, none of which would be affected by the ban.

Rep. Rob Bishop, Utah Republican who chairs the subcommittee on national parks, forest and public lands, accused the Obama administration of bowing to environmental groups by pushing a policy “based purely on political pressure and not sound science.”

Republicans say concerns about environmental damage are unfounded. The Interior Department’s draft environmental impact study showed that uranium mineral development would post “little, if any, threat to the park or water quality in the region,” according to an Oct. 12 letter to Mr. Salazar from Republicans.

At the same time, Republicans say, allowing more uranium mining would dovetail with the administration’s clean-energy efforts. At a time when the U.S. imports 90 percent of its uranium, the Grand Canyon region could help the nation reach its goal of becoming more energy self-sufficient.

“Energy Secretary [Steven] Chu has indicated that nuclear energy must be a part of our diverse energy portfolio, but you can’t have nuclear energy without uranium,” Mr. Bishop said.

Among those supporting the administration’s stance is Rep. Raul Grijalva, Arizona Democrat, who held a brief news conference after the hearing. Mr. Grijalva has introduced a proposal to make the proposed ban permanent.

“We’re talking about an opportunity here to take a deep breath and provide some security for the Grand Canyon and for the area around it,” Mr. Grijalva said.

Rep. Trent Franks, Arizona Republican, called the administration proposal “a step in precisely the wrong direction for the American economy.” He noted that in the 1970s, U.S. reactors used domestically mined uranium for 100 percent their electricity production.

The president “is seeking to make 326 [million] to 375 million pounds of the best quality uranium in the country entirely off limits, thus putting the desires of a handful of rabid environmentalists above America’s long-term energy independence and national security,” Mr. Franks said.

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