Published Wednesday, June 25, 2008 | 5:14 p.m.
Updated Tuesday, Oct. 28, 2008 | 10:15 a.m.
A House committee today invoked rarely-used powers to ban new mining claims on about a million acres adjacent to Grand Canyon National Park.
The Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit environmental group that has been tracking a surge in uranium mining claims near the rim of the canyon spurred by high prices of the element, applauded the 20 to 2 vote, which prompted the minority to walk out in protest.
The resolution by the House Natural Resources Committee, which forces Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne to enforce the ban, is binding, according to the group.
But the Grand Canyon Trust said in a statement Wednesday that Kempthorne and the Bush administration may choose to ignore it. When Secretary James Watt made a similar refusal in 1983, Arizona Congressman Mo Udall and the National Wildlife Federation successfully sued the Secretary and compelled him to comply, the statement said.
Between January 2003 and January 2008, the number of claims within 5 miles of Grand Canyon National Park increased from 10 to more than 1,100, according to Bureau of Land Management data compiled by the Environmental Working Group.
Southern Nevada Water Authority had written to Kempthorne expressing concerns about the effect uranium mining might have on the Colorado River, which provides 90 percent of the valley's water supply and drinking and irrigation water for more than 25 million people in the Southwest.
“This emergency action will help prevent uranium mining from harming the Grand Canyon and polluting drinking water for millions,” said Dusty Horwitt, Senior Public Lands Analyst with the group in a statement Wednesday. “The Senate should stop stalling and reform the 1872 Mining Law so that all Western public lands have full protection.”
The House resolution will not impact valid claims already staked; companies could still mine these claims even if their activities might threaten the Canyon or the Colorado River, according to Environmental Working Group.
“The resolution is a critically important stopgap measure to temporarily halt a new wave of uranium mining near the Grand Canyon allowed under the antiquated 1872 mining law," said Roger Clakr, air and energy director for the Grand Canyon Trust, in a statement. "It gives Congress time to pass legislation needed to permanently withdraw the lands from mining, prevent uranium mining from further threatening Grand Canyon’s seeps and springs, and from diminishing the experience of millions of visitors from around the world.”
A mining reform bill passed the House in late 2007, but has been stalled in the Senate, partially because of opposition from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.