Muckraker: Grist on Politics

The House Natural Resources Committee pulled a rarely-used move today to block uranium mining in one million acres of public land near the Grand Canyon, using their authority to order the Bush administration to immediately halt mining claims.

Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), chair of the Subcommittee on National Parks, Forest and Public Lands, suggested using the emergency move, which is apparently a provision that Congress hasn’t utilized since 1983. They voted 20-2 to push the Bush administration Department of Interior to stop new claims to uranium on lands adjacent to the national park for three years.

“The uniqueness and fragility of the Grand Canyon ecosystem, combined with the legacy of pollution, illness and death left by previous uranium mining, combine to make this the last place on Earth new mining should take place,” said Grijalva.

Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano asked Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne to withdraw the Grand Canyon area from mining in March, but the administration said they wouldn’t do so without a request from Congress. Native American tribes in the area have also requested the government to stop the claims on mining, as has the Sierra Club. They are concerned that the mining threatens the beauty of the park, as it requires tons of rock to be crushed and in order to remove the radioactive material. That, and uranium is both toxic and radioactive, and mining it can contaminate water supplies like the Colorado River, which provides drinking water for millions of residents.

The escalating price of uranium has caused a rush of uranium-mining claims recently, many of htem near the Grand Canyon. There are 1,100 claims on public lands within five miles of Grand Canyon National Park now, compared to 10 as of January 2003 (see our previous reports on this issue here and here).

“Congress has been forced to take emergency measures to stop the Bush administration from jeopardizing this iconic national park with radioactive uranium pollution,” said Sierra Club Southwest Regional Director Rob Smith in a statement. “Nearby communities have already suffered disease and death from past uranium mine pollution. If the Bush administration fails to act, it will jeopardize drinking water for millions of people in Phoenix, Las Vegas and southern California.”

The Associated Press reports that the resolution has no effect on the more than 10,000 claims already on land near the park. A spokesman for the Department of Interior said that the last time Congress used this move, the Justice Department decided it was unconstitutional. They also report that the committee’s Republicans left the room in protest of the vote, led by Rep. Rob Bishop, who said the move “crossed over the line” on a “supposed emergency that does not exist.”

Grijalva is also sponsoring legislation to put those acres permanently off limits to mining.