WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is banning new hard rock mining on more than a million acres near the Grand Canyon, an area known to be rich in high-grade uranium ore reserves.
The decision, announced Monday by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, hands a victory to environmental groups and some Democratic lawmakers who had worked for years to limit mining near the national park, one of the nation’s most popular tourist destinations.
“When families travel to see the Grand Canyon, they have a right to expect that the only glow they will see will come from the sun setting over the rim of this natural wonder, and not from the radioactive contamination that comes from uranium mining,” said Rep. Edward Markey of Massachusetts, the senior Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee.
But congressional Republicans and industry groups opposed it, arguing that Salazar was eliminating hundreds of jobs and depriving the country of a critically important energy source. The area near the Grand Canyon contains as much as 40 percent of the nation’s known uranium resources, worth tens of billions of dollars.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., called the ban a “devastating blow to job creation in northern Arizona.”
McCain said the ban was “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.”
During a speech at the National Geographic Society, Salazar said he was “at peace” with the decision, one of the most high-profile actions of his three-year tenure at Interior. Salazar twice had imposed temporary bans on mining claims.
“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 (and) irrigation.”
The decision imposes a 20-year ban on new mining claims on federal land near the Grand Canyon. About 3,000 mining claims already staked in the area will not be affected, although officials expect fewer than a dozen mines to be developed under existing claims.
While uranium remains an important part of a comprehensive energy strategy, Salazar said, the Grand Canyon is a national treasure that must be protected. Salazar called the ban “a responsible path that makes sense for this and future generations.”
Uranium is used in nuclear power plants, which supplies about 20 percent of the nation’s electricity.