With a resolution opposing the return of uranium mining to Coconino County, the Board of Supervisors wielded about all the authority they have to regulate an industry with a troubled past in the region.
At their Feb. 5 meeting, the five-member board voted unanimously for Resolution 2008-09 "opposing uranium development in the vicinity of those portions of Grand Canyon National Park and its watersheds that lie within Coconino County, Arizona."
"The industry left a difficult legacy in the county," said District 1 Supervisor Carl Taylor. "The Navajo Nation is still in litigation over uranium-caused illness."
The resolution responds to a recent Forest Service decision to allow VANE Minerals LLC to do exploratory drilling on the Tusayan Ranger District near Grand Canyon. According to the decision memo, while they can require the company to mitigate its impacts, the agency has no option under provisions of the Mining Act of 1872 but to approve VANE's request.
"A 'No Action' alternative is not an option that can be considered," it notes.
"They are powerless to deny applications for mineral exploration or mining," Taylor said. "We have very limited authority. The roads (for transport) are state and federal highways."
The law governing private mining on public lands was signed in 1872 by Ulysses S. Grant to encourage enterprising citizens to move west. Provisions like a permitting process that heavily favors the applicant, allowing for the purchase of public land at below market prices and exemption from paying royalties have not changed, though the nature of the applicants has. VANE is a multi-national corporation with operations in the U.S., Mexico and Great Britain.
The House passed reforms to the law in November and the Senate has conducted hearings as they move toward their own version. Taylor said that the Board of Supervisors would join with environmental groups like the Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club and Grand Canyon Trust to push for legislative change, as well as to approach the Secretary of the Interior for a policy change.
"We'll be going forward with a legislative agenda this spring," he said. "The simplest solution would be for the Secretary of the Interior to sign an administrative withdrawal to prohibit mining of that mineral in our area. It's impractical to start a uranium mining business where 5 million people come each year."
Seven tribes have banned uranium mining on their reservations, including the Navajo, Hopi and Havasupai.
Exploration is planned at seven sites in the Upper Basin area east of Highway 64, some within two or three miles of the park boundary. All areas are accessible by existing roads.
Initial drilling to as deep as 2,000 feet will take place over a month or two, with the company able to return within a year for more exploration. A new environmental analysis and public review would be required for actual mining to take place.
An increase in uranium prices has led to renewed interest in mining for the mineral throughout northern Arizona, with 1,600 claims on the Tusayan Ranger District. More exploration requests are pending.
To view the decision memo and map, visit the Kaibab National Forest Web site at www.fs.fed.us/r3/kai.