Friday news roundup: Mining ban and river otters


At the beginning of this week, I was ignorantly enjoying the warmth of “Juneuary”. By the end of the week, my revelry was repaid with a 6-degree morning that froze me to my bicycle.

As the world turned and cooled, the poli-enviro reality show continued to unfold.  So with due diligence from this frozen biker's thawing digits, here’s a few major issues circulating around your homestead.


It turns out that 4 million visitors to Arizona’s Grand Canyon won’t have to navigate their Griswold-style station wagons through uranium mines to enjoy the views at the rim. Department of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar made bold moves Monday by finalizing a ban of new hard-rock mining within a million acres surrounding the iconic landmark. Forty percent of the nation’s known uranium resources reside in the area.

Salazar’s 20-year ban job-killed 465 hypothetical positions and $16.6 million dollars of lost tax revenue, according to reports by the Associated Press. John McCain called the ban, “a devastating blow to job creation in northern Arizona”.   

The Secretary reasoned that mining radioactive metals within the Colorado River watershed could eventually harm 26 million residents who rely on the water for drinking and irrigation.  

In other nuclear news, Salt Lake City-based multinational EnergySolutions, a nuclear services company, has started to use a clever industry trick to bypass former governor Jon Huntsman’s 2005 ban on importing hot grades of uranium to the state: simply blend the hotter grades with the lower grades.

Critics question whether EnergySolutions’ waste site can handle the increased volume that would result from allowing blended waste. They also question whether the waste still classifies as the accepted Class A, under Utah state law. EnergySolutions says they’re equipped and prepared to contain more waste than they’ll ever receive.


Before we explore the failed revival of the Gila River otter, let’s brush-up on Ichishkiin language from the Columbia River tribes. Ever resourceful ancestors of the Warm Springs tribe ate shiyat, the soft backbone of eels, asm. They dried asm tails for baby pacifiers, gathered the oil to nurture their hair, and fishing for asm is a custom for today’s tribal members as familiar as hunting white-tail in November.

The Corp of Engineers reported that between 26,000 to 379,000 asm, specifically, Pacific lamprey, returned up the Columbia River to the Bonneville Dam between 1937, when the dam went in, through 1960s. In 2010, the Corps counted 6,234. Asm often die at the dam in hydroelectric turbines or as easy prey with nowhere to go. Passageways built for salmon do not suit asm so well. To amend these dismal circumstances and to preserve a lasting future of asm, last week the Inter-Tribal Fish Commission approved a plan to construct asm passageways, reduce river contaminants and reintroduce lamprey along the entire river basin. They hope to count 200,000 asm at the Bonneville dam by 2020.

Gila River otter face less-generous reintroduction efforts by their human overlords in New Mexico.  The state Game and Fish Department denied plans by the Gila River Otter Working Group to reintroduce otters in that river, citing potential impacts the carnivorous otter could have on endangered fish species.

Otter proponents say invasive crayfish and larger, slower species of bass are a river otter’s first choice; otter predation on those river dwellers would help the endangered fish of the Gila.

State wildlife officials say, you can’t tell an otter what to eat.


A report by the BLM says that methane farming could reduce the value of coal in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin. Luca Technologies Inc., a small natural gas company, has requested permits to inject chemicals similar to food additives (acetic acid, decanoic acid and potassium phosphate) into wells, which spur growth of coal-munching bacteria, whose biproduct – methane gas – can heat our homes and make Luca lots of money.

Environmental opponents question the safety and sparse regulatory framework surrounding Luca’s technology. The coal industry and BLM are concerned that since the technique reduces BTU levels of coal by as much as 1 percent, Luca will cheapen their product by $643 to $756 per acre.

And perhaps the most fatiguing news of all this week (for those faithful readers who stayed until the end) was the Toxic Release Inventory, compiled annually by the EPA, which showed the nation’s toxic output rose 16 percent from 2009 to 2010.

The EPA’s Region 10, which includes the Pacific Northwest, reported especially high releases (of course, some rogue companies didn’t report at all). Alaska’s toxic release rose 20 percent – Idaho’s rose 17 percent – Oregon’s rose 20 percent – and Washington’s rose 27 percent.

Thus concludes the weekly roundup of Western issues – lock, stock and soggy tissues.

Neil LaRubbio is a High Country News intern.

Station wagon image courtesy of Flickr user PMC 1stPix

Pacific lamprey image courtesy of Flickr user USFWS Pacific

High Country News Classifieds