Interior Secretary Kenneth L. Salazar placed a 20-year moratorium Monday on new uranium mining claims in the Grand Canyon region over the objections of Western Republicans, who insisted the ban would deliver an unnecessary blow to the Northern Arizona economy.
The moratorium, which comes after two years of study, represents “a serious and necessary step” to protect the iconic canyon and the watershed, said Mr. Salazar. Four million people visit the mile-deep canyon each year.
“A withdrawal is the right approach for this priceless American landscape,” Mr. Salazar said in remarks before the National Geographic Society. “We have been entrusted to care for and protect our precious environmental and cultural resources, and we have chosen a responsible path that makes sense for this and future generations.”
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer and other Republicans immediately denounced the order, saying that it would cripple economic activity and energy production despite evidence that yellowcake uranium had been mined safely in the region for years.
“This is yet another instance of the federal government engaging in excessive and unnecessary regulation, which is impeding the creation of jobs and economic growth,” Mrs. Brewer said in a statement. “The 20-year ban comes at the expense of hundreds of high-paying jobs and approximately $10 billion worth of activity for the Arizona economy.”
Protecting the Grand Canyon area’s environment and expanding the local economy “are not mutually exclusive. We could and should have both,” she said.
The order withdraws 1 million acres for 20 years from new mining claims, but does not prohibit previously approved uranium mining or other natural resource development, including mineral leasing, geothermal leasing and mineral materials sales.
As many as 11 uranium mines could still operate during the 20-year moratorium, including four that have already been approved but are not yet operating. Without the ban, the department estimated that 30 uranium mines could be developed over the next 20 years, with as many as six operating at one time, according to the department’s Environmental Impact Statement.
“The withdrawal maintains the pace of hardrock mining, particularly uranium, near the Grand Canyon, but also gives the department a chance to monitor the impacts associated with uranium mining in this area,” Bureau of Land Management Director Bob Abbey said.
Environmental groups cheered the move as an important protection for both the popular tourist attraction and the vital Colorado River basin. The river, which runs through the canyon, delivers water to 26 million people in seven states, raising the stakes for any contamination that could result from a mining accident.
“We strongly applaud the Obama administration’s decision to protect one million acres around the iconic Grand Canyon from dirty and dangerous uranium mining,” said the League of Conservation Voters in a statement. “This is a huge win for conservation and the countless Americans who enjoy the Grand Canyon’s natural splendor each year.”
Rep. Rob Bishop, Utah Republican, said the decision represented a cave-in to environmental groups at the risk of the nation’s energy supply. He said the uranium being withdrawn from production amounts to 40 percent of the nation’s domestic uranium resources.
“It is unconscionable that the administration has yet again caved to political pressure from radical special interest groups rather than standing up for the American people,” Mr. Bishop said.
He noted that Mr. Abbey had testified that the draft EIS found that “there was incomplete and unavailable information” about the mining’s potential risk.
“In light of these findings, or lack thereof, there is clearly not enough evidence to justify this radical decision,” Mr. Bishop said. “Lacking the scientific evidence to support this ban, the administration opted to bypass Congress to unilaterally impose bad policy.”
In October, Western Republicans introduced the Northern Arizona Mining Continuity Act of 2011, which would have blocked the administration from imposing a uranium-mining moratorium.