Hike On! Coming Soon to a Grand Canyon Near You: Uranium?

The Grand Canyon is facing an unprecedented convergence of threats, from air pollution to timing of water releases, but the most pressing is uranium mining. The Obama administration’s desire for more nuclear power has revived interest in extracting uranium. Since 2003, 2,251 mining claims have been staked within 10 miles of the Grand Canyon National Park boundaries. The current uranium claims are clustered in watersheds and on the aquifers that feed the tributaries, springs and seeps in the park.

In July 2009, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced a two year time-out on new uranium claims on nearly 1 million acres of federal land near the Grand Canyon. Only Congress can permanently withdraw land from mining claims.

Welcome to this week’s edition of Obama Administration caution and Republican obstructionism.

After a 20 year hiatus, one mine owned by Denison Mines resumed operations in January 2010 at the Arizona 1 Mine on the Arizona Strip in Mohave County, about 45 miles southwest of Fredonia and 10 miles from the boundary of Grand Canyon National Park. An estimated eight truckloads/day of ore is being sent to a uranium mill in Blanding, Utah, about 315 miles away. The refined yellowcake produced from this mine can be sold to utilities internationally, and some will likely end up with in South Korea with a utility that owns about 20 percent of Denison Mines. Gov. Jan Brewer supports both uranium mining and a statewide expansion of nuclear power.

During the two year moratorium, studies will be conducted regarding safety. Already, the first post-time-out study (Feb. 2010) claims that water near wells is safe, although local environmentalists disagree. The Havasupai tribe fears heavy winds from mining operations and contaminated water supplies.

Is this moratorium-then-study part of a larger pattern of Obama’s Department of the Interior? With offshore oil drilling and coal mining, as with uranium mining, Obama has first announced moratoria, then conducted studies claiming to support extraction, then moves to return to extractive business as usual with a few tweaks.

Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) has proposed H.R. 644 to make the moratorium permanent. The bill is moving through the House, with a hearing a couple of weeks ago. However, there’s no Senate equivalent bill. Neither Sen. John McCain (R-crAZy) nor Sen. John Kyl (R-crAZier) is willing to put the Grand Canyon and the health of the Colorado River watershed above nearby uranium mining. They’re not willing to reach across the aisle on a matter that should concern all Arizonans.

While normally I’d recommend support of HR 644, in this case waiting might be smart. A similar bill was introduced in the 2007-08 Congress (where the Bush administration flatly opposed it), and likewise a similar bill will be introduced next year. This Congress, following the human impulse to procrastinate, will put off making a decision until the moratorium expires in 2011. And by 2010, the state that gave us noted conservationists Morris and Stewart Udall may return to sanity and elect a reasonable Senator.