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Snap Fact #113

Grand Canyon Uranium Mining Halted for 20 Years by Obama Administration!
When Republican President Theodore Roosevelt observed the Grand Canyon for the first time in 1903 and marveled at the beauty and the sheer expanse of one of the world’s greatest wonders, he vowed to protect its natural splendor, to keep it as it was for time immemorial as the most precious heirloom that the US possessed. The idea of allowing miners in the Arizona Territory to prospect the canyon for zinc, copper, asbestos and other minerals in 1903 struck Roosevelt as criminal even if it was permitted by an 1872 mining law signed by President Grant which allowed miners to have file claims on public lands (Federal lands) royalty free. For 5 years Roosevelt battled an intransigent Congress to preserve the Grand Canyon as a national park, but was stymied by a cabal of mining outfits and their lobbyist pals. Finally on July 11, 2008 Roosevelt used his executive powers to invoke the Antiquities Act of 1906 to protect the Grand Canyon and other federal lands as national monuments. In so doing he shielded 800,000 acres of the Grand Canyon off limits to development. In 1919, the canyon was upgraded to a national park.

Fast forward to the George W. Bush Administration which permitted unfettered mining under the 1872 Mining Law in Grand Canyon lands. Due to soaring uranium prices, The Bush Administration permitted thousands of mining claims to be filed to extract uranium from the national forest surrounding the Grand Canyon to within a few miles from this majestic national wonder. These claims have been filed by both domestic and foreign companies, including one controlled by the Russian nuclear agency Rosatom. None of these companies paid a nickel to the US treasury for extracting uranium from US soil.

In the waning days of the Bush Administration, Secretary of the Interior Kempthorne violated a June 25, 2008 Congressional Emergency resolution demanding the immediate withdrawal of the million acres of public lands near Grand Canyon National Park from all forms of mineral entry and location these lands due to an alarming an alarming increase in uranium claims in such close proximity to Grand Canyon National Park. In so doing, The Bush Administration attempted to erase emergency provisions enacted in 1976 rather than comply with federal law, jamming through a rule change with only a 15-day comment period. As a result of the Bush Administration’s action, the Center for Biological Diversity, Grand Canyon Trust, and Sierra Club filed a lawsuit it in federal court to compel Secretary Kempthorne to withdraw these lands and stop allowing mining to continue. 
In June 2011 the Obama administration extended a temporary moratorium imposed in 2009 on the filing of new mining claims on a million acres surrounding Grand Canyon National Park as it studied the potential harm to the region. The Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group, found that at least one creek in Grand Canyon National Park, immediately below the old Orphan Mine, was contaminated with uranium 10 times the allowable federal limit. As noted by the Los Angeles Times:

“. . . Uranium mining poses high risks of contamination, particularly for the aquifers that feed creeks in the Grand Canyon and even the Colorado River, a key source of water for Southern California. The expected uranium rush in the area would have further threatened endangered wildlife, ruined vistas, polluted the air and soil, and harmed Arizona's multibillion-dollar tourism industry. . .”

On January 9, 2012, President Obama’s Interior Secretary Ken Salazar extended the moratorium for 20 additional years. Exempted from the moratorium, are existing mines, numbering perhaps a dozen within the three blocs of land that make up the million acres in question, will probably be able to continue operations or to restart them when uranium prices make mining worth the effort again. This was not enough to mollify Congressional Republicans who opposed the long moratorium. In fact, Arizona Rep. Jeff Flake, backed up by mining industry lobbyists, threw up numerous anti-environmental bills and amendments in the past year to prevent the Interior Dept. from withdrawing Grand Canyon lands from new claims. Fortunately his efforts failed to pass the Senate. Congressional Republicans allege that withdrawal of the lands would prevent the creation of thousands of jobs and upend a 28-year-old compromise on land use forged by environmentalists and mining proponents during the Reagan Administration. 

However, a Bureau of Land Management environmental study estimated that the land withdrawal would cost only about 465 jobs, and since almost all the companies that proposed to mine uranium near the Grand Canyon are foreign-owned, had new uranium claims adjacent to the Grand Canyon been permitted, the US taxpayers would’ve lost $16.6 million in additional income, sales taxes and other taxes because the anachronistic 1872 mining law permitted the extraction of hard-rock minerals from public lands royalty free. The LA Times op-Ed stated it best: “Americans should thank the Obama administration for withdrawing about 1 million acres near the Grand Canyon from new mining claims for the next 20 years.” President Obama is more concerned about protecting the pristine beauty of the Canyon area, keeping our precious, irreplaceable natural resources from being sold on the cheap to foreign entitities, while also protecting Americans from exposure to unhealthy radiation.