Pitting Energy vs. the Environment: Environment Gets Rare Victory

On January 9, 2012, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced that the federal government is placing a twenty-year moratorium on uranium mining on over one million acres of federal land surrounding the Grand Canyon.[1]  The ban will not affect the 3,200 mining claims already in existence on the withdrawn area, applying only to new mining claims.[2]  Salazar’s authority to impose the ban comes from the Federal Land Policy and Management Act,[3] which allows the executive to withdraw land from new mining rights given by the 1872 General Mining Law,[4] subject to existing claims.  In support of his decision to ban uranium mining in the area, Secretary Salazar stated, “We have been entrusted to care for and protect our precious environmental and cultural resources, and we have chosen a responsible path that makes sense for this and future generations.”

This mining ban represents just one more change in Grand Canyon land policy.  During the Bush administration, claims for uranium mining in the area were encouraged and resulted in thousands of new claims between 2006-2007, when the price of uranium was at its high.[5]  The beginning of the Obama administration saw a temporary ban on uranium mining, but Salazar’s announcement attempts to make the ban more permanent and ensure that the environment surrounding the Grand Canyon and throughout the Colorado River watershed is protected for at least the next two decades. What permanence the ban will have, however, remains to be seen, as there are strong interests on both sides of the uranium mining debate.

The twenty-year mining ban comes as a victory to environmental groups and Native American tribes in the area, who have spent years trying to bring attention to the uranium contamination in the Colorado River system and the environmental problems that have come with it.  The Center for Biological Diversity has urged the ban based on its assertion that at least one creek in Grand Canyon National Park, below an abandoned uranium mine, exhibits levels more than ten times the federal limit of uranium. Particularly outspoken in favor of the mining moratorium is Wenona Benally Baldenegro, the Harvard-educated Navajo who is running for U.S. Congress to represent the affected district, who stresses both the purely environmental and environmental justice reasons that support the ban.  Baldenegro also applauds Salazar’s action in that it prevents foreign energy companies, such as Russia’s Rosatom, from exploiting Arizona’s land without giving back in any meaningful way.

Republican politicians and the nuclear energy lobby, on the other hand, have been fighting against the ban, arguing that it will be detrimental to the local economy by eliminating mining jobs in the sparse region and to America’s quest for energy independence.  Rep. Jeff Flake (R – AZ) has gone so far as to sponsor legislation to prevent the ban from going into effect.[6]  Those opposed to the moratorium also doubt whether it will have any positive effect on the environment because 60 tons of uranium enter the Colorado River naturally each year.[7]

While it is not certain what the future ultimately holds for the land surrounding the Grand Canyon, this is a step in the right direction toward compromise between environmental protection and energy needs.  This ban on new mining claims gives the Department of the Interior twenty years to monitor the area and determine whether mining contributes to environmental degradation while allowing the existing mining claims to continue their quest for nuclear fuel.  If this ban successfully remains in place, it can stand as an example, showing that environmental protection and energy independence can coexist in the federal agenda.

– Sara Gaines, Senior Notes Editor


[1] Press Release, Department of the Interior, Secretary Salazar Announces Decision to Withdraw Public Lands near Grand Canyon from New Mining Claims (Jan. 9, 2012), available at http://www.doi.gov/news/pressreleases/Secretary-Salazar-Announces-Decision-to-Withdraw-Public-Lands-near-Grand-Canyon-from-New-Mining-Claims.cfm

[2] Id.

[3] 43 U.S.C. §1714 (2006).

[4] 30 U.S.C. §22 (2006).

[5] DA Morales, The progressive candidate for Arizona CD-1 applauds Ken Salazar’s uranium mining moratorium near Grand Canyon, Tucson Citizen, Jan. 8, 2012, http://tucsoncitizen.com/three-sonorans/2012/01/08/the-progressive-candidate-for-arizona-cd-1-applauds-ken-salazars-uranium-mining-moratorium-near-grand-canyon/

[6] Mark Duell, Grand Canyon uranium mining claims to be banned as Obama tries to protect national treasure, The Daily Mail, Jan. 9, 2012, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2084222/Grand-Canyon-uranium-mining-claims-banned-Obama-tries-protect-national-treasure.html

[7] Felicity Barringer, U.S. to Block New Uranium Mines Near Grand Canyon, N.Y. Times, Jan. 6, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/07/science/earth/grand-canyon-area-uranium-mines-to-be-blocked-for-20-years.html?_r=2&ref=science

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