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NewWest, May 8, 2009

BLM Defies Congress, Authorizes Grand Canyon Uranium Exploration
Will Salazar approve this threat to a beloved national park?

By Joan McCarter

The action comes in response to the news that the BLM, under Sec. of Interior Salazar, is moving ahead with granting permits despite a Congressional ban.

The Bureau of Land Management has authorized several new uranium exploration permits near the Grand Canyon despite a congressional resolution last year barring new claims near the national park.

According to documents released yesterday by the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) and the Grand Canyon Trust, BLM on April 27 authorized Quaterra Alaska Inc. to conduct eight uranium mine exploration operations at five separate projects north of Grand Canyon National Park and west of the Kaibab Plateau....

All of the projects are within the 1 million acres of BLM and Forest Service land that the House Natural Resources Committee ordered to be withdrawn from new uranium mining claims in June 2008, according to the groups.

We need to go back to last summer to sort this out. Mining on public land surrounding Grand Canyon National Park is permitted under the 1872 mining law. Last June, in response to vast increases in claims-staking near the Grand Canyon, the House Natural Resources Committee passed a controversial, but valid, committee resolution which pulled 1 million acres of public lands from new mining claims for up to three years. Democrats on the committee used a rarely invoked provision in the Federal Land Policy and Management Act that allows the committee to withdraw public lands from various uses in emergency situations.

The Bush Interior Department, run by Dirk Kempthorne, refused to comply with the House panel’s resolution. Current Interior Secretary, Ken Salazar, has not yet agreed to comply. However, the BLM’s quiet authorization of these permits seems like a pretty clear clue of what he intends to do. While it’s possible that regional BLM officials did this one on their own, it doesn’t seem too likely.

A number of environmental organizations, and local and regional politicians, have been working to block further uranium exploration and mining in the area. One of those groups, the Center for Biological Diversity, released this statement today:

“The Bureau’s continuing defiance of Congress on behalf of the uranium industry threatens one of our nation’s most beloved national parks,” said Taylor McKinnon, public lands program director for the Center for Biological Diversity. “It’s time the Bureau of Land Management received the leadership it needs to put the Grand Canyon uranium rush to bed.”

Spikes in the price of uranium during the past two years have caused thousands of new uranium claims, dozens of exploratory drilling projects, and movement to open several uranium mines on public lands immediately north and south of Grand Canyon. Concerns about damage to wildlife habitat as well as surface- and groundwater contamination of Grand Canyon National Park and the Colorado River have been expressed by previous Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano; the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California; the Southern Nevada Water Authority; the Arizona Game and Fish Department; the Navajo, Hopi, Havasupai, Hualapai, and Kaibab Paiute nations; and the Coconino County Board of Supervisors.

Note that the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California is on that list. Some 25 million people downriver from the Grand Canyon drink that water. A number of these groups banded together last year to sue Kempthorne for ignoring Congress. That suit is still pending, nonetheless, the plaintiffs did not receive notice of the BLM’s new authorizations. As of today, the groups are amending their existing court case to challenge these new projects.

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz.— The Center for Biological Diversity, Grand Canyon Trust, and Sierra Club today amended their lawsuit against the Bureau of Land Management and the Department of the Interior to challenge newly authorized uranium exploration near Grand Canyon National Park. The new uranium projects are located within a 1-million acre area that was required to be immediately withdrawn from mining by a June 25, 2008 emergency resolution of the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources. Today’s amendment challenges new uranium projects authorized by the Bureau of Land Management on April 23 and April 27, 2009. While the Bureau initially denied that new uranium exploration activities had been authorized, it has since acknowledged that exploration on the lands in question could begin whenever the companies wish.

“The Bureau’s new uranium exploration runs afoul of both the law and a congressional resolution protecting Grand Canyon,” said Taylor McKinnon, public lands program director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “This is an agency in dire need of leadership from the new administration — the Grand Canyon deserves it.”
The suit cites violations of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, National Environmental Policy Act, and other laws. Today’s amendment incorporates the Bureau’s new uranium-drilling authorizations based on the same violations.

Meanwhile, Rep. Raul Grijalva introduced the Grand Canyon Watersheds Protection Act in March of 2008 and again in 2009, legislation that would permanently withdraw from mineral extraction the same 1 million acres encompassed by the Committee resolution. Congress needs to take quick action on that legislation, and pressure Salazar to rescind these authorizations.

© 2008 NewWest

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton