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US announces 20-year ban on uranium mining in the Grand Canyon

Posted on behalf of Katherine Rowland.

The Obama administration has banned uranium mining on one million acres of land around the Grand Canyon in Arizona. The move, announced on Monday by the Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar, outlaws new mining claims in the uranium-rich region for the next 20 years.

“A withdrawal is the right approach for this priceless American landscape,” Salazar said. “People from all over the country and around the world come to visit the Grand Canyon. 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.”

Mining claims on lands adjacent to the Grand Canyon rose dramatically during the administration of former US president George Bush, as high prices led to a new “uranium rush.” According to mining industry data, the price of uranium skyrocketed from roughly US$20 a pound to nearly $140 a pound between 2005 and 2007.

The ban will not affect the 3,200 existing mine claims in the area, and the US Bureau of Land Management anticipates that up to a dozen new projects could be developed under previously established rights.

Conservation groups have applauded the decision. Bob McEnaney of the Natural Resources Defense Council described the move as having “established a line in the sand: that there are places too great to allow such destructive practices to take place.”

The ban throws into relief a contentious debate over how to value and best use natural resources. Republicans and the mining industry maintain that the ban will harm economic growth.

Former presidential candidate and Arizona senator John McCain has denounced the move. “This decision is fueled by an emotional public relations campaign pitting the public’s love for the Grand Canyon against a modern form of low-impact mining that occurs many miles from the Canyon walls and in no way impacts drinking water quality of the Colorado River,” said McCain in a statement.

“Banning access to the most uranium-rich land in the United States will be overwhelmingly detrimental to both jobs in Utah and Arizona and our nation’s domestic energy security,” said congressman Rob Bishop of Utah.

However, environmental groups contend the value of clean drinking water and tourism revenue is greater. “The real economic engine in northern Arizona is not uranium mining, it’s tourism,” Taylor McKinnon of the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity told the Washington Post. “To jeopardize our economic engine with more toxic uranium mining is unacceptable.”

Image courtesy of YoTuT via Flickr under Creative Commons.

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