The House Natural Resources Committee approved emergency legislation yesterday to bar new uranium mining near Grand Canyon National Park, after Republicans walked out in protest.
At a markup yesterday, the panel also sent a bill that could block a planned liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant in Massachusetts to the House floor.
The emergency resolution utilizes authority granted to the committee under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 (FLPMA) to compel Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne to withdraw the last pockets of public land around the Grand Canyon from new uranium mining claims.
Committee Republicans, led by Rep. Ron Bishop (R-Utah), walked out en masse before the vote on the resolution. Bishop originally planned to call for an indefinite postponement of the measure but said that the committee's process had become too corrupt to matter. "It is a proposal that is clearly unconstitutional. It is a resolution for an emergency that does not exist," Bishop said before walking out. "This resolution has now crossed the line."
The National Parks Subcommittee, led by the resolution's sponsor, Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), considered legislation earlier this month that would remove more than 1 million acres spread across three parcels of Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management lands from future mining.
Republicans and administration officials balked at his legislation, calling it unnecessary, but Republicans said the committee should pursue Grijalva's bill rather than push the emergency declaration.
Grijalva said his proposal was the only way to ensure that the national icon in his state was protected from the potentially devastating effects uranium mining could have on the region and its population, nothing that more than 1,100 uranium mining claims have been filed for sites within five miles of the park.
With all the committee Republicans gone, there were not enough remaining Democrats to make the 17-member quorum needed for a vote, forcing chairman Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) to hold off on the vote for an hour. With only Democrats present, the bill passed 20-2, with Reps. Dan Boren of Oklahoma and Stephanie Herseth Sandlin of South Dakota dissenting.
"We have a responsibility to defend the Grand Canyon," Grijalva said after the vote. "Given the importance of the resolution, the Republican leadership decision to leave the committee instead of upholding their duty to side with one of the country's greatest treasures was petulant and childish."
But committee ranking member Don Young (R-Alaska) said yesterday's maneuver could threaten future U.S. nuclear development.
"Actions such as this will ensure that we will be forced to continue looking for foreign sources of uranium in countries that have no environmental standards," Young said. "Regular order has not been followed in this resolution."
Only a temporary decision
Under FLPMA, Kempthorne and Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer will be notified that the committee is ordering the withdrawal of Interior and Forest Service lands, but Kempthorne would be responsible for discharging the declaration.
The FLPMA provision has been exercised by the committee four times in the past, but only with mixed success, and the last time it was used produced some legal opinions that could weaken the committee's case.
"We will review the resolution, particularly in light of a 1983 Justice Department opinion suggesting these types of resolutions are unconstitutional, and make a decision as to how to proceed," said Interior spokesman Chris Paolino.
The 1983 memo suggested that an emergency declaration could conflict with the bicameralism and presentment clauses of the Constitution. The Congressional Research Service also arrived at that opinion in a June 20 memo. CRS concluded that while the committee could exercise its right under FLPMA, Kempthorne would not necessarily have to comply with the order.
Even if the secretary upholds the order, an emergency withdrawal of land cannot last longer than three years, a fact environmentalists were quick to note as they lauded yesterday's decision.
Jane Danowitz, director of the Pew Campaign for Responsible Mining, said the necessity to push through emergency legislation highlighted the shortfalls of the 1872 hardrock mining law that governs the uranium claims near the park. "If you can't stop mining near the Grand Canyon, where can you stop it?" she asked.
Last fall, the House passed legislation from Rahall that would update the law to impose royalties on hardrock production and boost environmental protections, but efforts to craft a Senate version have faltered in recent months.
Panel clears scenic river, public lands bills
Prior to the drama on the Grand Canyon resolution, the committee cleared six other bills, including an amended version of another Republican-opposed bill that would designate 40 miles of the Taunton River as wild and scenic.
The designation proposed in Rep. Barney Frank's (D-Mass.) H.R. 415 would run from the headwaters all the way to Mount Hope Bay in Fall River, Mass., the site of a proposed LNG terminal.
The amended version clarifies the management structure of the river, following the recommendations of a study that suggested some parts of the river should get scenic designation while other segments get recreational designation. Republicans said the largely industrial river hardly qualifies as wild and scenic, accusing Democrats of using the proposed designation to block the terminal.
The bill "is one of the worst abuses of the Wild and Scenic Act to ever come before this committee," said Bishop, who made a failed attempt to include several amendments en bloc that he said would add some "intelligence and credibility" to the legislation.
Frank told the Parks Subcommittee last October the effort to protect the river began before the terminal was proposed in 2002, but he does not mind the potential result.
Weaver's Cove Energy, a subsidiary of Hess, is seeking to build the LNG terminal and has the approval of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, but yesterday's bill could further sink those plans.
"Designating the industrial portion of the Lower Taunton River as 'wild and scenic' would have adverse consequences to those property owners whose land abuts the river bank and to the longstanding efforts by Fall River officials to promote and maximize the commercial marine and economical development potential of the state's second largest deepwater port," David Tamasi, spokesman for Weaver's Cove Energy, said in an e-mail.
The vote yesterday was only the latest in a series of setbacks for the terminal. Last year, the U.S. Coast Guard determined the Massachusetts and Rhode Island waterways are unsafe for the transport of LNG to the Fall River terminal, a decision upheld last month.
The committee also approved:
H.R. 1286, to create a national historic trail marking the 600-mile route taken by the armies of Gen. George Washington and Count Rochambeau between 1780 and 1783 as they traveled to fight the British.
H.R. 3227, to direct Interior to stock lakes with fish in Washington's North Cascades National Park, Ross Lake National Recreation Area and Lake Chelan National Recreation Area.
H.R. 1210, to authorize the exchange of land in Grand, San Juan and Uintah counties in Utah.
H.R. 6041, to redesignate the Rio Grande American Canal in El Paso, Texas, as the "Travis C. Johnson Canal."
H.R. 1907, to formally establish the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Coastal and Estuarine Land Protection Program.