Local, state officials blast Interior's recommendation

GARY WATSON

GARY WATSON

KINGMAN - Both local and state officials are voicing their opposition to Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar removing more than 1 million acres of public lands around the Grand Canyon from hard rock mining for six months Monday.

The federal government placed a temporary ban on new mining claims in 1 million acres surrounding the Grand Canyon about two years ago in order to study the effects new claims would have on the environment and determine if a 20-year ban was necessary. A good part of the land is in the Mohave County "Strip" area, which is known for its deposits of high-grade uranium. The moratorium does not prevent companies with existing claims from exploring or mining.

Salazar ordered the additional six-month closure Monday after the department received several concerns during the study about possible damage to water quality by new mining.

He suggested Monday that the withdrawal of the full 1-million acres be the federal government's preferred alternative in the study. Other alternatives include doing nothing or removing only part of the land from mining.

Mohave County Supervisors Gary Watson and Buster Johnson vehemently disagree with Salazar's decision.

Modern uranium mining techniques do not pose the same risk to the environment that past techniques did, Watson said.

"This is a land grab by (President Barack) Obama's administration. They want to make it a national monument," he said. The president is trying to remove the land from use by using the Antiquities Act to go around Congress. Only Congress has the power to remove public land from use, he said.

"It escapes me that Obama wants to build more nuclear power plants but also wants to close one of the richest deposits of uranium in the nation," Watson said. He said he understood the federal government and the environmentalists' concerns about mining, and he had no problem with banning new mining claims within the Grand Canyon National Park, but the deposits in Mohave County were quite some distance from the park. He also pointed out that there was already trace amounts of uranium in the Colorado River from naturally eroding deposits.

Johnson claimed that the six month and possible 20-year ban would take away more than 4,000 jobs and create a $30 billion loss in potential revenue for the area.

Johnson pointed to the Arizona Strip Wilderness Act of 1984 that recognized the uranium potential of more than half a million acres of land and released it from wilderness classification so it could be explored for potential uranium deposits.

He also called Salazar's claim that the water quality of the river was in danger inaccurate. BLM officials from the Arizona Strip Field Office have told him there was "no evidence of contamination of water and had no evidence of problems with the safe operation of the uranium mines now in operation on the lands. "Sec. Salazar's efforts are purely for political reasons to satisfy demands from anti-development environmentalists who have always opposed the mining industry," he said.

The deposits in the Strip area could supply power generation for the state of California for more than 20 years, Johnson said. "The nation cannot be pro-nuclear and anti-nuclear fuel."

He also claimed that the U.S. Secretary of Energy, Dr. Steven Chu, was asleep at the switch and allowed Salazar's environmental agenda to outweigh the national interest.

Johnson said he has asked the president to intervene in the situation and order Salazar to comply with the law that requires his department to coordinate with local governments.

He also claimed that Salazar's department has not produced a sufficient reason during the two-year moratorium to remove the land from new mining claims and ordered the six-month emergency withdrawal in hopes of finding a reason.

Gov. Jan Brewer asked the federal government to reconsider its decision in a news release Monday. She said Salazar's decision "flies in the face of years of Arizona experience with uranium mining."

Brewer also said that the Arizona Geological Survey and Department of Environmental Quality have submitted findings that show uranium mining constitutes a minimal risk to the area. The responsible extraction of uranium from the area could pump an estimated $10 billion into the state economy, she said.

Salazar pointed out Monday that there are other areas in northern Arizona and in Wyoming where uranium deposits could be developed.

Environmental groups, such as the Arizona Wilderness Coalition, have hailed the announcement as a way to save one of the most pristine areas in the U.S.

"Uranium mining in the Grand Canyon eco-region has a history of land and water contamination, and given the wilderness resources of this vast region, the secretary's announcement will help ensure we don't spoil the crown jewel of Arizona and our country," said Matt Skroch, executive director of the AWC. The development of uranium claims around the park would destroy habitat and permanently pollute or deplete aquifers feeding the Grand Canyon, he said.

Skroch said recent U.S. Geological Surveys show contamination of watercourses and lands adjacent to existing mines. Local officials deny these claims.

The study on whether to remove the land from all future claims will be finished in the fall, according to Salazar.