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Options outlined for mining near Grand Canyon

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Friday, Feb. 18, 2011 1:14 PM

ALBUQUERQUE – The U.S. Department of Interior has outlined four proposals to address mining around the Grand Canyon, including one that would ban any new claims on 1 million acres for 20 years.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar temporarily blocked new claims on the same land in 2009 while the department studied whether to set aside the acreage for a longer period.

“This process will help make a decision that recognizes the need for wise development of our energy resources, the importance of healthy lands and waters, and the voices of local communities, tribes, states and stakeholders,” Salazar said Thursday.

More than 85,500 comments were considered in forming the alternatives, which include taking no action, setting aside the 1 million acres and partially withdrawing either 300,000 or 650,000 acres from any new claims. The alternative that involves setting aside 1 million acres is identified as the “proposed action” in a draft environmental study obtained by The Associated Press ahead of its scheduled release. But Interior officials said they don’t prefer one proposal over the others.

As many as 10,000 mining claims exist on federal land near the Grand Canyon for all types of hard-rock exploration. About 1,100 uranium-mining claims are miles from the park’s boundaries.

Should any of the land be withdrawn, mining companies would need to prove they have valid existing rights to those claims before mining could occur. Only one company actively is mining in the area. Anywhere from 11 to 30 mines could be developed, according to the draft environmental study done by the Bureau of Land Management.

Arizona Congressman Raul Grijalva had advocated for a permanent withdrawal from new mining claims, but that was eliminated as a consideration in the study because the Interior secretary does not have the ability to segregate land for more than 20 years on more than 5,000 acres. Congress would be the appropriate venue for such action, the BLM said.

Grijalva said Congress is unlikely to act on the issue.

“We would have wanted a withdrawal in perpetuity, not just 20 years (for) all those obvious points,” he said in an interview. “We still have some concerns about the exploratory efforts going on in the region.”

Public meetings will be held March 7-10 in Phoenix, Flagstaff and Fredonia in Arizona, and in Salt Lake City. The 45-day comment period began Friday.

Mining companies say they’ll fight any proposal that would put the area off-limits to new claims.

The BLM listed the potential value of uranium mined near the Grand Canyon at $2.9 billion over 20 years and the employment benefits at $613.7 million – figures that environmentalists contend are inflated. Most of the claims for uranium are staked in the Arizona Strip, a sparsely populated area immediately north of Grand Canyon National Park known for its high-grade uranium ore.

“We are secure in our knowledge we know how to do it right and have been doing it right,” said Pam Hill, executive director of the American Clean Energy Resources Trust. “We’ve got a battle.”

The amount of minerals that could be extracted range from 4,000 tons to 33,000 tons under the Interior proposals. Anywhere from 164 to 1,364 acres would be disturbed in the process.

Up to 332 workers and their families could be employed in the industry if no land is set aside. That would amount to a slight increase in total population in five counties.

Fredonia Town Manager Dan Watson said the jobs are welcome, especially in a tough economy. But he said the town of about 1,200 near the Arizona-Utah border offers few opportunities for the workers to spend the money they earn.

“It would depend on how many mines are open at one time, how long they plan on leaving them open,” he said.

Northern Arizona tribes that have banned uranium mining on their reservations, along with environmentalists, cite groundwater contamination, pollution and destruction of wildlife habitat and sacred sites in opposing any new mining. The industry’s ability to mine near national parks underscores the need to reform federal mining laws, environmental groups said.

“Uranium mining imposes long-term health risks on local communities and is costing federal taxpayers billions of dollars to clean the mess from its last boom,” said Roger Clark, air and energy director for the Grand Canyon Trust in Flagstaff.

“We simply cannot afford another round of this deadly legacy.”

Kris Hefton, chief operating officer for VANE Minerals, said the temporary segregation has cast uncertainty over the area and delayed plans to move forward.

Of the environmental concerns, he said, “If they are alarmed about it, I would encourage people to visit the area firsthand and some of the mines that are in operation and some that have been reclaimed.”

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