Interior Announces Grand Canyon Mining Moratorium

fromKJZZ

The U.S. Department of the Interior is placing a 20-year moratorium on new mining claims in and around the Grand Canyon. Environmentalists say the ban is crucial to protecting the region. However, the mining industry and some Republicans say the moratorium will be harmful to Arizona's economy and the nation's energy independence.

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The Obama administration is imposing a 20-year moratorium on mining in and around the Grand Canyon. It says the ban on development will protect water supplies from potential contamination. The area is especially rich in uranium and congressional Republicans say the move will hurt job creation and energy independence.

From Flagstaff, KGZZ's Laurel Morales reports.

LAUREL MORALES, BYLINE: After years of debate and several short term bans, today's announcement focused on the long term. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar began by showing a short film about what he called the Southwest priceless American landscape.

SECRETARY KEN SALAZAR: Spectacular as it is, the Grand Canyon is more than rock and river. It's alive with more than 2,000 species of plants and animals.

MORALES: It just so happens that this treasure is surrounded by some of the richest uranium veins in the country, and when the price for uranium shot up a few years ago, mining companies staked thousands of claims on the land surrounding Grand Canyon National Park.

Republican lawmakers have been pressuring the Obama administration to allow these claims to go forward, but today Secretary Salazar said no.

SALAZAR: It is the right thing to do by way of protecting the Grand Canyon, the Colorado River and the millions of Americans who live and rely on the waters of that great basin.

MORALES: Salazar pointed out that seven Southwestern states and millions of people depend on the Colorado River basin. Much of the vegetable supply for the rest of the country comes from southern California's Imperial Valley. The moratorium announced today will allow for further study of the aquifer.

Scientists say they want to look into potential harm that can come from faults, fractures and sinkholes around those abundant uranium veins. Minerals consultant Michael Berry says currently the U.S. has to import most of its uranium from Russia to fuel nuclear power plants. He insists the process of extracting these pipes of uranium is contained and clean.

MICHAEL BERRY: It seems silly when the pipes on the northern Arizona strip - they're probably some of the highest grade pipes in the country. There really isn't any evidence that shows that mining of the pipes, with today's technology, has any impact. So I think it's too bad. I think it's a missed opportunity for the country, to be honest.

MORALES: For environmental groups, today's announcement is a big win in a very long fight. Roger Clark is Air and Energy Quality Director for the Grand Canyon Trust.

ROGER CLARK: No matter what the uranium industry says, there's no guarantee that the Grand Canyon would be safe from contamination on the surface and down deep in the groundwater. We already have evidence of contamination from former mines.

MORALES: One already operating mine a few miles outside the park is grandfathered in under this moratorium, as are many other existing claims. The ban affects new and future minerals exploration. Because of that, environmentalists are pushing for legislation that would strengthen and extend the moratorium indefinitely.

For NPR News, I'm Laurel Morales in Flagstaff.

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