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Uranium Mines Near The Grand Canyon?

The American Southwest is—as Tom Lehrer put it—a place "where the scenery's attractive and the air is radioactive," thanks to the region's history of uranium mining and nuclear testing. Now, if the Interior Department succeeds in a quasi-lame-duck push to overturn a ban on uranium mining near the Grand Canyon, the Southwest's biggest scenic attraction may end up with radioactive water, too. That's the contention, at least, of environmentalists who have argued that mining the uranium found in the area's breccia pipes—basically, columns of broken rock that form from collapsed caves—would release uranium and other radioactive substances into an aquifer that feeds some of the creeks that run into the canyon. The House Natural Resources Committee shares their concern, which is why, in June, it temporarily withdrew the land around the Grand Canyon from new mining claims. The committee's power to make these sorts of temporary withdrawals comes from a little-known rule implementing the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976. This is the rule the Interior Department is now trying to undo.

It's hard to get to the bottom of just how a series of new uranium mines would impact the Grand Canyon. The Orphan uranium mine, which operated until 1969 within walking distance of the park's South Rim visitor center, has almost certainly polluted a nearby creek, raising its dissolved uranium levels to up to three times the EPA's limit for drinking water. But concerns about radiation in a few small tributaries making a noticeable impact on the water of the Colorado River—and thereby affecting the drinking water of Las Vegas or Southern California—are probably overblown.

What's really troubling about the prospect of uranium mines just outside the park is that under the Bush administration's reading of the 1872 General Mining Act—a law that, believe it or not, still governs mining on public lands—the government would have no right to stop a proposed mine even if it were going to have a serious impact on the Grand Canyon. Shortly before leaving office, the Clinton administration issued new mining regulations that allowed the Interior Department to deny permits to mining operations that would cause "significant irreparable harm" to the environment. The Bush administration quickly undid these rules, leaving federal administrators with no veto power over mining, no matter how environmentally destructive. Nobody's denying that we need uranium, or that the area around Grand Canyon National Park may be as good a place as any to get it. But surely mining next door to a national treasure ought to be done right, and our current mining rules offer no way to make sure that happens.

--Rob Inglis, High Country News