Congress steps into uranium mine fracas

Requirement in appropriations bill rider would likely stymie land withdrawal

Jeff Flake

Jeff Flake

KINGMAN - Companies looking to stake mining claims in more than 1 million acres of land surrounding the Grand Canyon may have a second chance. Congressman Jeff Flake, R-Mesa, announced a rider to the 2012 Interior and Environment Appropriations Bill in the U.S. House of Representatives Thursday that would prevent the Department of the Interior from withdrawing the land from all new mining claims for the next 20 years without approval from Congress.

The rider would also nullify U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's order to extend a current ban on new mining claims in the area for another six months. The Department of the Interior started studying the possibility of removing the land, which includes a significant portion of Mohave County north of the Grand Canyon, from new mining claims in 2009. At that time, Salazar ordered a two-year moratorium on all new mining claims. He extended the moratorium during a press conference held at the Grand Canyon two weeks ago. He also announced that the department's preferred option is to remove the land from all mining activity for the next 20 years.

"The Obama Administration is stepping on Arizona's economy and overstepping in terms of government regulations by banning new uranium mining claims in Northern Arizona," Flake said in a news release.

Mohave County Board of Supervisors Chairman Buster Johnson and District I Supervisor Gary Watson have opposed the withdrawal of the land.

In a news release, Johnson stated that withdrawing the land from use would severely impact the county's economy, including the loss of 4,000 jobs and $30 billion in revenue.

Roger Clark, the air and energy program director of the Grand Canyon Trust, an organization that has supported the mining ban, says different.

Clark said Flake and Johnson's statements that banning uranium mining in the area would impact the state's or local economy were interesting considering the results of an analysis of the federal government's environmental impact statement done for the organization by Richard Merritt from Edward D. Pollack & Company.

Merritt has 35 years of experience in economic development and real estate development consulting. He specializes in economic and fiscal impact analysis and co-authored a study and development strategy for the state's economy. He has also produced a number of economic impacts for private mining companies.

According to Merritt's analysis, the federal government has overestimated the amount of uranium ore each mine and proposed mine will produce, the value of the ore and its finished product and the number of employees needed to run the mines. It also calls into question the addition of economic figures from a uranium mill in Utah since the study is supposed to focus on Northern Arizona.

Clark said banning uranium mining from the Grand Canyon area would not greatly affect the state's economy, however, allowing it would impact the state's tourism industry.

Watson disagrees with Clark and the Alliance. He understands the concerns about possible impacts to tourism and opposes mining in the Grand Canyon National Park, but the best deposits of uranium are not located in high tourism areas. Most of the mines and proposed mines are located west of Kanab Creek, several miles from the canyon.

"It's highly unfair to withdraw the entire 1 million acres (which are outside of the park but owned by the federal government)," he said. "We need to use some common sense with this thing."

Watson suggested calling a halt to the mining ban long enough that each county, the state and the federal government could work out what is best for them.

He also raised the concern that the Obama Administration may be trying to get the area designated as wildlands, which would allow the administration to circumvent Congress using the Antiquities Act and declare the land a national monument. President Bill Clinton employed a similar technique in 2000 when he created Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument.

Creating a national monument would mean the withdrawal of the land for use not only for mining, but for grazing and lumber uses as well.

"There are too many vital natural resources in that area for it to be withdrawn," Watson said.

The situation is incredibly complex, he said. People need to see the breccia pipes that hold the uranium ore, they need to see a mine in operation, and they need to see a reclaimed mining area before making a decision on the matter, he said. Uranium mining may actually help reduce the amount of the mineral found in the Colorado River by removing deposits that are already naturally eroding into the water, he said.

The bill, including Flake's rider, will be heard by the full House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday.