House moves on uranium mining ban

Legislation would remove 1 million acres from exploration

Last week, U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) reintroduced the Grand Canyon Watersheds Protection Act, legislation originally introduced last year prohibiting all activity related to uranium mining across 1 million acres of public-lands watersheds surrounding Grand Canyon National Park.

The public lands protected by the bill - the Tusayan Ranger District of the Kaibab National Forest south of the Canyon, the Kanab Creek watershed north of the park, and House Rock Valley, between Grand Canyon National Park and Vermilion Cliffs National Monument - are the last remaining public lands surrounding Grand Canyon National Park not protected from new uranium development.

Recent years have seen thousands new uranium claims, dozens of exploration drilling projects and movement to open uranium mines on public lands immediately north and south of Grand Canyon. Concerns about resulting radiological and heavy-metal contamination of surface and groundwater discharging into Grand Canyon National Park and the Colorado River have been expressed by former Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano, the L.A. Water District, the Southern Nevada Water Authority, the Arizona Game and Fish Department, the Navajo, Hopi, Havasupai, Hualapai, and Kaibab Paiute nations and Coconino County.

The legislation follows former Secretary of the Interior Kempthorne's defiance of a June 25, 2008, House Committee on Natural Resources resolution directing him to withdraw the same 1 million acres of public lands around Grand Canyon National Park from mineral entry. Kempthorne continued to authorize uranium exploration in the emergency withdrawal area after the resolution's passage. In response, the Center for Biological Diversity, Grand Canyon Trust and Sierra Club filed suit in federal court to compel him to withdraw these lands and stop allowing mining to continue.

If passed, the legislation would override the applicability of the Bush administration's subsequent December midnight regulation to Grand Canyon - a rule change in response to conservation groups' litigation that eliminated Congress' authority to enact emergency withdrawals under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act. The rule change was promulgated with only a 15-day public comment period. Regulations implementing the act continue to afford the executive branch and the secretary of the interior the authority to enact temporary administrative mineral withdrawals separately from Congress.

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