Monday, Jan. 9, 2012 | 1:01 p.m.
The Department of Interior issued an order today banning new uranium mining for 20 years on 1 million acres of federal land near the Grand Canyon.
Citing the need to protect the national park, sacred Native American sites and the Colorado River -- the primary source of Las Vegas’ drinking water -- Interior Secretary Ken Salazar signed the record of decision in Washington, D.C.
“People from all over the country and around the world come to visit the Grand Canyon,” Salazar said. “Numerous American Indian tribes regard this magnificent icon as a sacred place and millions of people in the Colorado River Basin depend on the river for drinking water, irrigation, industrial and environmental use.”
In June, Salazar issued a six-month moratorium on new uranium mining claims on 1 million acres near the Grand Canyon as the government studied the effects of uranium mining in the area. During the presidency of George W. Bush, the area, which is rich in uranium deposits, had seen a spike in mining activity.
The order allows approved mining operations to continue.
“The withdrawal maintains the pace of hardrock mining, particularly uranium, near the Grand Canyon,” said Bureau of Land Management Director Bob Abbey, “but also gives the department a chance to monitor the impacts associated with uranium mining in this area.”
Experts in Las Vegas have raised concerns about uranium mining near the Grand Canyon, saying it poses a risk to the drinking water source of more than 25 million people in western states.
David Kreamer, a UNLV professor, told the Sun in 2009 that claims that such mining would have little or no effect on the river and surrounding springs were "unreasonable" and unsupported by past investigations and research.
As many as 1,100 uranium mining claims exist within five miles of the canyon.
Environmentalists at The Wilderness Society praised the decision. While acknowledging the potential loss of $2.91 billion in uranium ore over two decades, the group said the Grand Canyon’s watershed and the surrounding landscape could be irreparably damaged were new mining allowed.
The area affected by the order includes 355,874 acres of U.S. Forest Service land in the Kaibab National Forest, 626,678 acres controlled by the Bureau of Land Management and 23,993 acres of so-called “split estate” in which land at the surface is held by one party and the minerals below the surface are owned by the federal government.