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The Grand Canyon's Uranium Boom

Judy Pasternak had a good piece in the Los Angeles Times on Sunday taking a closer look at the rapid proliferation of uranium-mining claims on the fringes of Grand Canyon National Park. The number of claims within five miles of the park has soared from just 10 in January 2003 to more than 1,100 now, with most of the new claims on the Kaibab Plateau north of the canyon. Pasternak highlights the dilemma for environmentalists: On the one hand, there's concern the activity could spoil the landscape and pollute the Colorado River, which has downstream users like L.A.'s Metropolitan Water District worried. On the other hand, uranium for emissions-free nuclear power has to come from somewhere, and it just so happens that much of America's uranium is located near some of the Southwest's best scenery.

One thing this episode illustrates fairly clearly, though, is the need for mining-law reform--which, strange as it may sound to Easterners, is a perennial hot-button issue in the West. Under the General Mining Act of 1872, which still governs hard-rock mining claims, the Forest Service is obligated to approve applications for exploratory drilling in National Forest land, without conducting any sort of environmental review. This would at least force the mining companies to provide some evidence to back up their contention that the drilling can be conducted with minimal damage. The law has a whole host of other problems too--primarily in that it allows mining companies to extract precious metals from public lands without paying anything in royalties to the feds, and then stick taxpayers with cleanup costs. Last fall the House approved legislation to overhaul the 1872 mining law, but so far it's stalled in the Senate.

It's also worth noting that John McCain has yet to take a public stance on the matter, which seems to put his love of the Grand Canyon (and general affinity for Teddy Roosevelt-style conservation) at odds with his bizarre insistence that massive subsidies for nuclear power should be the cornerstone of any climate-change bill.

--Josh Patashnik