MINING:

Report says claims threaten national treasures

A rash of recent hardrock mining claims is threatening 10 American natural treasures, including national parks, according to a new report by the Pew Environment Group.

The report, which was issued to coincide with National Park Week, comes amid a push for a Department of the Interior proposal to set aside about a million acres from new uranium mining claims near the Grand Canyon. A current two-year moratorium expires in July (Greenwire, April 6).

The report puts the Grand Canyon at the top of its list of sites at risk. Using government data, researchers found that companies had staked more than 8,000 mining claims in public land around the Grand Canyon since 2004. In contrast, the report counts fewer than 100 mining claims in the area before 1995. Higher uranium prices contributed to the dramatic increase in claims and a renewed interest in domestic mining of the resource vital to nuclear energy.

Even with the Grand Canyon receiving the most publicity, the report finds several other parks, monuments, forests and historic sites are being surrounded by recent hardrock mining claims:

  • Joshua Tree National Park in California -- Using Bureau of Land Management data, the report found 275 active mining claims within 5 miles of Joshua Tree's borders. The report says companies have staked more than a quarter of the claims since 2005.
  • Yosemite National Park in California -- The report found about 120 mining claims within 5 miles of the national park, with two-thirds of them staked since the beginning of 2006.
  • Blackfoot River in Montana -- The report found more then 2,000 mining claims in the river's watershed, more than half staked since 2006.
  • Gila National Forest in New Mexico -- The report found more than two dozen claims in the Gila wilderness and more than 700 in surrounding national forest areas.

The report recommends that the Obama administration use executive authority to withdraw areas from mining claims. That authority restricts withdrawals affecting more than 5,000 acres to renewable 20-year periods, the report says.

"The most immediate need is for the administration to take strong action in the coming months to protect the Grand Canyon," Jane Danowitz, public lands director for the Pew Environment Group, said in an interview. "This is really an icon of America."

Toronto-based Denison Mines Corp. is already extracting uranium near the Grand Canyon and hopes to expand operations there. And even if the administration moves to declare the area off-limits, valid existing claims would not be affected by a withdrawal. Still, advocates hope the officials act by July to prevent companies from staking any new claims.

However, the National Mining Association says America should be promoting more domestic production of in-demand minerals.

"The U.S. attracted 21 percent of worldwide investment in metals mining in 1993. Last year, we attracted 8 percent, which has been the average for the last several years," the NMA said in a statement, adding that the country is increasingly reliant on foreign sources.

Experts say most of the claims will never become mining operations and, even if they do, production depends on a long permitting process to ensure compliance with environmental laws.

"National Parks are designated to include a buffer area so that development does not encroach on the protected feature," the NMA said. "The Grand Canyon National Park, for example, is more than a million acres, and the proposal is for DOI to withdraw another million acres surrounding the park. Some of the claims of concern to Pew are 20 or more miles from park boundaries. Where is the 'safe' area to mine in Pew's mind?"

For Pew, the issue is about protecting not only the Grand Canyon but also taxpayers. An 1872 law gives mining companies preference over other public land uses and doesn't require royalty payments for mining hardrock like gold, silver and uranium. Conservation advocates say environmental guidelines are also too lax.

Danowitz said foreign companies are "able to take this uranium off of U.S. soil without paying taxpayer compensations. It just goes to show that this is an issue that should raise concerns beyond environmental impacts."

Some lawmakers and President Obama are proposing an overhaul of hardrock mining laws. The president's budget blueprint for next year includes a first-ever royalty on hardrock mining, among other changes. The NMA says it will support reform that doesn't punish the industry. But for years, lawmakers and industry have failed to achieve a winning compromise. Reform supporters are skeptical that they will this time around (E&E Daily, March 16).

Click here to read the report.

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