Friday news roundup: Uranium -- To mine or not to mine?


Though not as movie villain-worthy as its cousin plutonium, uranium, the naturally occurring element used to make nuclear weapons and fuel nuke plants, is just as contentious, as illustrated in this week's headlines.

On Wednesday, the Obama administration released a plan for a 20-year ban on uranium mining within a million acres of public land that flank the Grand Canyon. "The administration move was telegraphed in June by Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar, who at that time announced an 'emergency' six-month extension of an existing ban on mining development in the area," reports the The Christian Science Monitor.

According to the United States Geological Survey, the Grand Canyon region contains some of the highest quality uranium ore in the country. But it also contains the Colorado River watershed, within which most of the claims are located. Taj Ainlay heads the Toiyabe Chapter of the Sierra Club, which represents California's Sierra region as well as Nevada. In The Nevada View, Ainlay says his constituents depend on the Colorado River and Lake Mead for "safe, reliable" drinking water, which has to serve 2 million southern Nevada residents and 40 million visitors each year. "Industrial mining literally a few miles upstream from Lake Mead," he says, "would threaten that water source."

The moratorium will also protect the park's world-famous, singularly stunning scenery and geologic features from hard rock mining's necessary but destructive processes, says Jane Feldman, chair of the Southern Nevada Group conservation committee.

“Modern mining technologies move huge amounts of dirt and rock and permanently change the landscape. We do not want the majestic views of the Grand Canyon permanently scarred by a race for short-term profit,” she told The Nevada View. “Grand Canyon National Park is a critical business engine for our region, generating $700 billion annually and supporting 12,000 full-time jobs.”

But opponents of the ban are also playing the well-worn jobs card. Bob Weidner, director of government affairs for American Clean Energy Resources Trust, a spuriously titled pro-mining and pro-nuclear advocacy group, told The Christian Science Monitor in June that the mining ban takes "$30 billion of American economic wealth and jobs off the table." A BLM analysis suggests otherwise, finding that over the next 20 years, economic output in the region will amount to only about $2.2 billion dollars less under the ban than "if mining went ahead unfettered."

On October 12 -- as a legal rejoinder to Salazar's ban extension -- Senator John McCain (R-Ariz) and a handful of other Republican Congressfolk introduced the Northern Arizona Mining Continuity Act, a bill that would essentially open the northern Arizona lands to new uranium mining leases and prevent bans on future ones. The bill's sponsors say uranium mining "could bring hundreds of millions of dollars per year into local economies with minimal environmental risk," reports Cronkite News.

Local economic benefits are certainly a boon, but let's face it, it is the cash-strapped, deeply indebted federal government that could most benefit from mining-generated money.

However, thanks to the 1872 Mining Act, most uranium mining operations -- like all hard-rock mining -- don't have to make federal royalty payments. (Though the feds have managed to squeeze a bit from the industry -- about $60 million in royalties actually -- through the Department of Energy's Office of Legacy Management, which oversees a Uranium Leasing Program administering 31 uranium lease tracts in southwestern Colorado.)

On October 18, however, a federal judge prohibited the department from issuing new leases through the program, suspending the 31 existing leases and halting future development until new environmental reviews are completed. The ruling was a victory for the Colorado environmental groups that sued the Department for "failing to adequately protect the environment or analyze the full impacts of renewed uranium mining on public lands," says the Center for Biological Diversity in an October 19th press release. The reviews to be completed include an analysis on impacts of the proposed Piñon Ridge uranium mill, which would be located in the Paradox Valley in southwest Colorado. The mill recently cleared another permitting hurdle, when the Environmental Protection Agency granted it a construction permit for storing uranium tailings.

The Energy Policy Act of 2005, which reestablished nuclear power as key part of the country's energy strategy, has played a role in booming uranium prices which, in turn, have prompted the posting and exploration of thousands of new leases and projects throughout the west.

One such endeavor, Ur-Energy's Lost Creek uranium-mining project in south central Wyoming, was granted a permit Thursday from the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality. The permit is the last one the company needs from the state; the project "now awaits only an OK from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which must approve the company’s operations plan before it can begin developing the site," and, the company hopes, process 2 million pounds of uranium oxide annually, reports The Casper Star-Tribune.

 Marian Lyman Kirst is an intern for High Country News

Images courtesy flickr users Markusnl and SkyTruth