Grand Canyon: Time is running out

Posted: Dec 15, 2019

On July 21, a moratorium on staking new uranium and other hardrock mining claims, on over one million acres of public land near the Grand Canyon National Park, will end. Unless the Department of the Interior makes a decision on the land withdrawal prior to that—which seems unlikely, given the historic timeline for such decisions—it will once again be open season.

In 2009, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar proposed the withdrawal from lands in the Grand Canyon watershed when mining claims in the area sky-rocketed. Before 1995, in an area known for uranium deposits, there were fewer than 100 mining claims. As the cost of uranium increased, the number of claims also rose. By 2004, there were 320 more claims; in 2006, 3,200 new claims and; in 2007, 2,900 additional claims were staked.

At issue are the adverse environmental effects of the notoriously dirty practice of uranium mining, specifically the fear of radioactive materials and heavy metals entering the surface and groundwater. Contamination of the Colorado River watershed would affect upwards of 25 million people.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is currently collecting comments on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). After receiving over 50,000 comments and eight requests to extend the comment period, it moved the deadline to May 4. Ordinarily, this would be a good move. But, if it proceeds along a time-line typical for the agency, the BLM will spend several weeks reviewing the comments and incorporating them into the Final EIS. After that, it will take at least 30 days until a Record of Decision, describing the proposed action, is signed.

That brings the end of the decision process perilously close to the moratorium expiration date. Already, 50 uranium claims (staked before the time-out) are being mined near the Grand Canyon. If the moratorium ends in July without a withdrawal from some or all of the off-limits areas, exploration could continue on roughly 8,300 pending mining claims. (When a company plans to disturb fewer than five acres of land, they only need to let the BLM know 15 days in advance of the date they plan to start exploring.)

If the segregation expires before the final decision is signed (assuming the BLM chooses one of the three alternatives in the EIS that would limit claims in the area), the BLM could be deluged with new mining claims also. That’s something nobody—with the exception of those companies that stand to make a windfall on uranium, at the expense of environmental health—wants.

Comment on the future of mining near the Grand Canyon.

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