Congress takes on Arizona Strip mining issues

Butch Meriwether/Courtesy<br /><br /><!-- 1upcrlf2 -->Buster Johnson updates the Mohave Republican Forum on the uranium mining issue in the Arizona Strip Wednesday evening. <br /><br /><!-- 1upcrlf2 -->

Butch Meriwether/Courtesy<br /><br /><!-- 1upcrlf2 -->Buster Johnson updates the Mohave Republican Forum on the uranium mining issue in the Arizona Strip Wednesday evening. <br /><br /><!-- 1upcrlf2 -->

KINGMAN - The issue of if uranium mining, or any mining, should be allowed in the land surrounding the Grand Canyon has turned into a battle of the bills in Congress.

In March 2008, several environmental groups filed a lawsuit to stop the exploration and mining near the Grand Canyon. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar placed a two-year moratorium on new mining claims in the area in July 2009 and extended it another six months in July.

Mohave County Board of Supervisors Chairman Buster Johnson gave the Mohave Republican Forum an update on the situation Wednesday night.

Congressman Jeff Flake, R-Mesa, announced a rider to the 2012 Interior and Environment Appropriations Bill in the U.S. House of Representatives in July that would prevent the Department of the Interior from withdrawing the land, Johnson said. But the rider was dropped.

On Wednesday, Rep. Trent Franks introduced House Resolution 3155, the Northern Arizona Mining Continuity Act of 2011, in the U.S. House of Representatives, Johnson said. The bill would prohibit the U.S. Interior Department from withdrawing more than 1 million acres surrounding the Grand Canyon National Park from any new mining claims for the next 20 years.

About one-half to two-thirds of the acreage is in the northern half of Mohave County, the Arizona Strip.

Franks' bill challenges a bill introduced by Rep. Paul Grijalva (D-Tucson) in March. Grijalva's bill, HR 855, the Grand Canyon Watersheds Protection Act, would withdraw the land "from location, entry, and patent under the mining laws, and for other purposes."

According to HR 855, existing claims could still be mined, but if the rights to those are relinquished or acquired by the U.S. government, the property would be withdrawn from mining.

Grijalva's bill is currently in the House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources.

Franks' bill also accuses the Interior Department of ignoring the Arizona Wilderness Act of 1984. The act states that any public land in the Arizona Strip area that is not part of a national park or monument is open to mining, grazing and other uses, Johnson said.

He said he and several other officials from around the state have been lobbying their congressmen and senators to do something about the proposed land withdrawal since it was announced in 2009.

Only Congress can authorize the withdrawal of public land from mining use, but the Board is concerned 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.

The Board of Supervisors has opposed the withdrawal citing concerns that it will damage the county's economy and job market.

The Interior Department says any claims about job losses are false. Any company that already has an existing mining claim in the area will be able to mine. It is only closing the land to new claims-and new jobs.

Johnson said in the 1980s numerous mining sites were located north and south of Grand Canyon National Park. The industry employed more than 200 people and generated more than $412 million. Today it could bring in $29 billion and more than 688 jobs into the Utah and Arizona economies, according to a recent study, he said.

Uranium mining in the Arizona Strip is very different from the uranium mining that went on during the 1940s and 50s, he said.

"This isn't open pit mining," he said.

The uranium ore is concentrate in geological formations called breccia pipes, Johnson said. The companies drill down into the pipes, extract the ore and take it away.

The whole mining area takes up 20 acres or less, - smaller than most Walmart parking lots, he said. There is an estimated 375 million pounds of ore in the Arizona Strip area, which could produce more energy then the 13 million barrels of oil in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska.

Typically the companies mine an area for three to five years and then move on, he said. The companies are required to reclaim the land after they are finished mining.

The water table in the area is more than a 1,000 feet below the breccia pipes, Johnson said. There is very little chance of contaminating the water table or the Colorado River. The river already carries a small amount of uranium because of erosion.

The closest mine will be located six miles from the border of Grand Canyon National Park. Visitors to the park won't be able to see them and the mining won't affect the beauty of the park, he said. No one wants any harm to come to the park.

Johnson also pointed to a draft environmental impact statement that was released by the federal government in February that determined "there is no conclusive evidence from well and spring sampling data that modern-day breccia pipe uranium mining operations in the northern portion of the Grand Canyon region has impacted the chemical quality of groundwater in the regional-aquifer."

The final copy of the environmental impact statement is due later this month, Johnson said.