Time is running out for the Grand Canyon

 

By Heather Hansen, Red Lodge Clearing House

On July 21, a moratorium on staking new uranium and other hardrock mining claims on over one million acres of public land near the Grand Canyon National Park, will end. Unless the Department of the Interior makes a decision on the land withdrawal prior to that--which seems unlikely, given the historic timeline for such decisions and the volume of comments the Bureau of Land Management will have to consider while revising its environmental impact statement--it will once again be open season.

In 2009, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar proposed the withdrawal from lands in the Grand Canyon watershed when mining claims in northern Arizona skyrocketed. Before 1995 there were fewer than 100 mining claims. As the cost of uranium increased, the number of claims did as well. By 2004, there were 320 more claims; in 2006, 3,200 new claims; and in 2007, 2,900 additional claims were staked. About 10,600 mining claims now are located in the proposed withdrawal area.

Kaibab Forest 1

The three areas under scrutiny are in a million acres administered by the BLM and the U.S. Forest Service. The claims are clustered along the northern border of Grand Canyon National Park and Kaibab National Forest (which is bisected by the canyon); within the southern portion of the Kaibab forest; and on the east side of Kaibab, bordering the Colorado River.

The uranium in this area is concentrated in columns, called Breccia Pipes, and the ore is generally one-third of a mile or more beneath the ponderosa and pinyon pine forests. According to the United States Geological Survey, which released a massive study just last year on the prospect of mining in the area, the proposed withdrawal area may contain about 326 million pounds of the stuff, or roughly 12 percent of the undiscovered uranium in northern Arizona.

With the price of uranium hovering around $60 per pound, it’s no mystery why so many miners want to dig in. Plus, the federal government makes it easy enough. Not only does the anachronistic General Mining Act of 1872 put the unearthing of uranium and other hardrock minerals above all other uses, staking claims to large swaths of federal land (mining claims average 20 acres) couldn’t be easier. Prospectors simply need to plant a flag, tell the BLM (or Forest Service) where it is, and pay $189.

Mining companies need only to be authorized to do business in the U.S. to reserve a piece of the pie. As a result, many claims in the Arizona Strip have been staked by Canadian firms. For example, Toronto-based Denison Mines Corp. has made 110 claims and plans to purge about 110,000 tons of uranium per year from its “Arizona 1” site alone.

Even though over $1 billion worth of hardrock minerals are plucked from, and hauled off, public lands every year, no company--regardless of where it’s based--pays state or federal royalties for hardrock mining, or any rental or user fees. (Obama’s 2012 budget proposes a royalty fee of 5 percent of gross proceeds from hardrock miners, noting that other extractive industries paid $9 billion in such fees and royalties in 2010. Unfortunately, existing claims are exempt from the rule.)

In addition to the lack of economic stimulus to facilitate such mining, the potential environmental consequences are many. In addition to being in close proximity to a tourist attraction that sees 5 million people per year, and generates nearly $700 million in tourism revenue, the area in question is a rich and ecologically sensitive one. There are nearly 100 species of concern that inhabit the area proposed for withdrawal and, according to the USGS report, “Mining activity can result in changes to this habitat that may increase exposure of the biological resources to chemical elements including uranium, thallium, radium, and other radioactive decay products.”

The seepage of radioactive materials and heavy metals from notoriously dirty practices into surface and groundwater is of particular concerns in the three withdrawal areas. The USGS sampled 15 springs and five wells in the area that have already been mined for uranium and found that they contained “dissolved uranium concentrations greater than the Environmental Protection Agency maximum for drinking water.” All of these one million acres drain into the Colorado River watershed. Any contamination of that could affect upwards of 25 million people.

The BLM is still collecting comments on the draft environmental impact statement on the withdrawal proposal. The suggested 20-year withdrawal of the million acres--the maximum allowed by law without a Congressional initiation of a permanent withdrawal--would protect the area from new mining claims. Regardless of what the Secretary of the Interior decides, mining on any valid, pre-existing claims will be allowed to proceed.

After intense public interest, the BLM extended the deadline for comments on the proposal to May 4. If the process proceeds along a timeline typical for the agency, the BLM will likely spend several weeks reviewing the comments and incorporating them into the final environmental impact statement.

A BLM official told this writer that they’ve already received 180,000 public comments that will need to be processed as part of the final EIS. Of those, about 600 are “unique” (not form) letters that could take significant time to address in the final statement. After that, it will be at least 30 days until a record of decision, describing the proposed action, is signed by Salazar.

Kaibab Forest 2That brings the end of the decision process perilously close to the moratorium expiration date. Already, 50 uranium claims are being mined actively near the Grand Canyon. [CORRECTION: There is only one active mine, the Denison's Arizona 1 mine, although there are 50 claims that may have established valid rights to mine. However, those claims are not being mined right now.] If the moratorium ends in July without a withdrawal from some or all of the off-limits areas, exploration could continue on thousands of pending mining claims. (When a company plans to disturb fewer than five acres of land, they only need to let the BLM know 15 days in advance of the date they plan to start exploring.)

Also, if the segregation expires before the final decision is signed--assuming the BLM chooses one of the three alternatives in the EIS that would limit claims in the area--the BLM could be deluged with new mining claims. That’s something nobody--with the exception of those companies that stand to make a windfall on uranium--wants.

We’ll have to wait and see whether or not the BLM has the resources it needs to complete its analysis before the floodgate on claims opens once again. Regardless, the process has highlighted the importance of three future actions.

The first is the environmental eagle eye we now need to focus on those pre-existing claims within the Colorado River watershed. The second is saying "yes" to the royalty fee on hardrock mining proposed in the FY 2012 budget. And, third, is an overhaul of the 1872 Mining Law, which made sense when President Ulysses S. Grant wanted to encourage development of the frontier but is now laughable. It’s time we prioritize other uses of our 350 million acres of public land.

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

Heather Hansen is an environmental journalist working with the Red Lodge Clearinghouse /Natural Resources Law Center at CU Boulder, to help raise awareness of natural resource issues.

Images of Kaibab National Forest courtesy USFS