BLM issues new volley in Canyon mine fight
Federal officials moved Thursday to abolish a rule that allowed a congressional committee to try to block future uranium mining around the Grand Canyon.
The plan by the Bureau of Land Management has outraged conservationists, who said the Interior Department and the Bush administration are advancing business and energy interests at the expense of the environment.
"They behave more like real-estate agents than stewards of those lands," said Rep. Raul Grijalva, the Arizona Democrat who invoked the arcane emergency declaration during a June committee meeting.
In that meeting, committee members passed a resolution that ordered Interior Secretary Dick Kempthorne to immediately ban new mining claims on more than 1 million acres of federal lands north and south of the Canyon for up to three years.
Lawmakers invoked a little-used rule in Section 204 of the 1976 Federal Land Policy and Management Act that allows House and Senate natural-resources committees to take emergency action to protect threatened public lands.
But the Interior Department questioned the constitutionality of the rule and continued to authorize additional mining claims and permits near the park. Environmental groups sued, and the case is pending in U.S. District Court as permits continue to be issued.
This new action by the BLM, one of several agencies under the Interior Department's umbrella, essentially rescinds Congress' right to withdraw lands from mining and other activities in emergencies, Grijalva said.
It also will leave the Grand Canyon vulnerable to environmental damage from hard-rock mining and exploratory drilling, conservationists say.
"The administration has chosen to change the law under a highly constrained public process rather than follow it and protect Grand Canyon," said Taylor McKinnon, public-lands program director for the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity. "Nothing - not laws, not Congress and not the Grand Canyon itself - will impede this administration's accommodation of industry on our public lands."
There are as many as 10,000 existing mining claims on BLM and U.S. Forest Service lands near the Grand Canyon for all types of hard-rock exploration, officials have said.
Since the June emergency resolution, three exploration projects have been initiated and four exploration projects have been authorized in the area, McKinnon said.
Conservationists believe that a hard-rock mining boom that has accompanied higher prices for uranium and other raw materials poses an immediate environmental threat to the national park. They also believe such exploration could have a negative effect on Colorado River drinking water used by millions of residents in Arizona, Nevada and California.
But the BLM, which manages more than 258 million acres of public land, mostly in the western United States, argues that there are ample protections in place to protect the Canyon and to ensure the sanctity of federal lands.
"I know there are protections in place for the Canyon and all the public lands. Whether it be the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, there are protections in place," BLM spokesman Chris Paolino said. "Impact statements need to be done. Rules need to be followed before any mining goes forward."
The agency said Thursday that it moved to eliminate the emergency declaration because it was redundant. The Interior secretary already is required, under the department's own rules, to withdraw land from public activities in cases where those activities would pose potential harm to the environment, Paolino said.
But conservationists argue that those protections and regulations haven't been enough.
"Those laws haven't prevented spills in the past," said McKinnon, citing a 1984 flash flood that washed 4 tons of uranium ore into a creek and then into the Colorado River. "It would be foolish to entrust the Grand Canyon and the Colorado River to the same irresponsible agencies and industries a second time."
The public has 15 days to comment on the proposal.
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