Friday, July 22, 2011 | 2 a.m.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in June issued a six-month moratorium on new uranium mining claims on 1 million acres near the Grand Canyon. The ban provides time for the government to complete a study of the effects of uranium mining in the area.
A final report is due this fall, and Salazar said the department is considering banning new mining claims in the area for the next 20 years.
The issue is important. Uranium mining threatens not only the beauty and ecosystem of the Grand Canyon, but it also poses a threat to the Colorado River, which is a key source of water for about 26 million people in Arizona, Nevada and California. The Colorado River, which forms Lake Mead, provides 90 percent of the water used in Southern Nevada.
Salazar cited a concern for water quality in announcing the moratorium extension because the 1 million acres are in the Colorado River watershed. Water officials worry that more uranium mines could result in radioactive material streaming into the river.
The Grand Canyon and the Colorado River need to be protected. The moratorium on new claims was put in place because of an incredible spike in mining interest in the area under the George W. Bush administration. The Grand Canyon doesn’t need to see any more mining around it.
Environmental groups and Colorado River water users cheered Salazar’s decision, but in Congress, Salazar’s announcement was targeted by some Republicans who claimed it was a bad policy.
In a news release issued this month, Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., boasted about inserting a provision to block the administration from enforcing the moratorium in the spending bill that covers the Interior Department. The bill passed the House Appropriations Committee this month. Flake claimed that mining “can create jobs and stimulate the economy in Northern Arizona.”
But Flake’s argument is shameless. He is using the nation’s poor economy as an excuse to force a dangerous policy on the country.
Flake’s argument is part of the larger Republican attempt to roll back any sort of regulation. In passing the interior spending bill from his committee, Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers complained about what he called the administration’s “widespread regulatory overreach” and pledged to cut it.
But when it comes to clean water, Congress shouldn’t be cutting back. People need to be confident their water supply is protected, and if the Republican plan moves forward, there will be serious doubt.
As it is, the Colorado River is already endangered by uranium mines and tailing piles that sit in the watershed, some perilously close to the water. The moratorium also doesn’t prevent existing mining claims from being developed. The Interior Department says there are about 3,500 hard-rock mining claims in the area. Adding the potential for more uranium to enter the water doesn’t make sense.
Republicans in Congress should quit trying to repeal the moratorium and should instead work to protect the Grand Canyon and the Colorado River. It makes no sense to put millions of people’s drinking water at risk.