Why We Should Hold Off Mining Uranium Near the Grand Canyon

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Interior Secretary Ken Salazar Credit: AP

Ken Salazar, the Secretary of the Interior, isn’t really known for his eloquence. The former Colorado senator spends much of his time now wrestling over efforts to expand oil and gas drilling on federal lands and water—important work, of course, but not exactly the sort of thing that launches speechwriters on spiraling flights of eloquence.

But yesterday, as he stood on Mather Point at the Grand Canyon National Park, Salazar (ok, probably his communications people) put into words what our natural heritage really means—and why it deserves protection:

To be here – for John Wesley Powell or for any of us – is to be overwhelmed and humbled by the scale of geologic time. The minutes, hours, and days by which we measure our lives are hardly an instant in the life of these canyons.

Yet, all of us – by the decisions we make in our short time here – can alter the grandeur of this place.

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After he made those remarks, Salazar announced a decision that would have an impact on the “grandeur of this place”—fortunately, for the better. Salazar told reporters that he would be extending for at least six months a moratorium on new uranium mining claims in a million-acre buffer around the Grand Canyon. The six-month moratorium will allow time for the conclusions of a study on potential environmental harm from mining to the Grand Canyon and the surrounding waters, though Salazar indicated that he hopes for a longer pause on new mining claims.

The move—cheered by environmentalists, who had been pressing the federal government to close off the Grand Canyon buffer—comes as a two-year-long moratorium on new uranium mining originally put into place by Salazar in 2009 was set to expire. That original decision put the brakes on a Bush-era move to open up much of the lands around the Grand Canyon to uranium mining. As a result, new claims surrounding the Grand Canyon skyrocketed, rising from 400 in 2004 to 8,388 by 2010, according to the Pew Environment Group, an increase of more than 2000 percent, as the price of uranium rose. And many of those claims are held by foreign mining companies—including the Russian state atomic Rosatom and South Korea’s state-owned utility.

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Why is that worrying? Hardrock mining of the sort needed to pull uranium from the ground can be incredibly polluting, and the bill for cleaning up old mines has run to the billions. While the Grand Canyon itself is off-limits to such mining, that buffer area is still part of the canyon’s watershed, and any runoff or toxic tailings from a mine could pollute otherwise protected waters. “Uranium mining has a long, scarred history of contamination,” Jane Danowitz, the director of the Pew Environment Group’s U.S. public lands program, told me last month. “Our concern is what mining might mean for the downstream water.”

Although prices have fallen in the wake of Fukushima, uranium on the whole has become much more valuable over the past several years, as developing countries like China announced plans to vastly expand nuclear power. That alone might have been enough to peak interest in America’s uranium resources, but it’s also extremely cheap for mining companies to lay claims on federal lands in the West, thanks to an 1872 law that has never been changed that allows companies to pay 19th century prices for their claims. Not only does the outdated law cost the government billions in potential revenue, it encourages the proliferation in mining claims. Nor is the Grand Canyon the only national park threatened by mining—as a recent Pew report pointed out, mining is encroaching on Yosemite, Joshua Tree and even Mt. Rushmore.

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Salazar’s moratorium won’t stop existing mines, and it won’t cancel mining claims around the Grand Canyon that have already been made, but it will create a timeout to allow government officials to fully analyze the risks and benefits of uranium mining. For his part, Salazar has indicated that he would prefer a 20-year moratorium on new mining—though Republicans are already criticizing the Obama Administration for putting the environment before potential mining jobs. They might well remember the words of Theodore Roosevelt, who warned about the dangers of developing the Grand Canyon:

Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it.

Last time I checked, I’m pretty sure TR was a Republican.