The House National Parks Subcommittee tomorrow will once again consider legislation that would permanently bar new uranium exploration around the Grand Canyon, one year after similar efforts led to a standoff between House lawmakers and the Bush administration over congressional authority to protect public lands.
The bill from Subcommittee Chairman Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), H.R. 644, would withdraw 1.1 million acres of public land surrounding Grand Canyon National Park from future uranium mining claims.
Bill Hedden, executive director of the Grand Canyon Trust who will testify at tomorrow's hearing, said the legislation is necessary given the more than 8,000 uranium claims within the withdrawal area, three-quarters of which have been staked in the last couple of years in a bid to take advantage of rising prices for the nuclear fuel.
That mining can contaminate local water supplies, leading to health problems among local populations while creating more former mine sites near the canyon, he said. "Having a mining boom right near the Grand Canyon is probably about the worst place you can have a new uranium rush," said Hedden, noting that four-thousandths of 1 percent of the world's uranium reserves are within the withdrawal area.
Grijalva's subcommittee held a hearing on the same proposal last June but faced serious opposition from Bush administration officials and Republicans, who said the bill would hurt local economies.
Rather than move forward with Grijalva's legislation, Democrats on the Natural Resources Committee invoked the panel's rarely used emergency declaration authority to compel then-Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne to temporarily withdraw the 1 million acres from future hardrock mining.
But the Interior Department rejected the panel's request, arguing that the committee did not have a quorum for the vote, which was taken after Republicans walked out of the markup. The department also disputed the committee's authority under the 1976 Federal Land Policy and Management Act to issue emergency withdrawals and later issued a new rule that limited its ability to carry out such orders.
Several environmental groups, including Hedden's, are suing Interior to carry out the committee's withdrawal order.
The Obama administration has yet to state how it stands on either the emergency withdrawal authority or mining near the Grand Canyon, though two sources familiar with the issues said the Interior Department may announce a withdrawal plan for the lands surrounding the park as soon as today.
An Interior spokesman declined to comment when contacted on Friday about the possible announcement.
There will be no administration witnesses at tomorrow's hearing, but Grijalva told E&E he wants to hear from experts and citizens groups near the Grand Canyon that would be affected by possible mining. The Obama administration will be represented at a future hearing on the issue, he said.
"The fact that they're not there may take away from the hearing, a little bit, but this hearing is going to be just as tough this time as it was last time," Grijalva said.
While anticipating the same resistance amongst committee Republicans as last year, Grijalva said this year he hopes to take a more "pragmatic" approach by holding the two hearings and working to get enough support to move the bill to the House floor.
"I'm not sure if we're at that point," Grijalva said when asked about using the emergency withdrawal authority. "A lot depends on what the reaction of this administration is."
Still, the absence of an administration view at tomorrow's hearing is a point of concern for subcommittee ranking member Rob Bishop (R-Utah), who noted that the United States continues to import 90 percent of its uranium supply while 40 percent of domestic supplies are locked up.
"The only thing that has changed is the administration and they weren't invited to testify," Bishop said. "We all share the goal of protecting the Grand Canyon, and any mining that will occur will be environmentally safe and well outside the park."
Last week, Bishop sent a letter to Grijalva week asking him to invite someone from the National Park Service to speak about the administration's view on H.R. 644, saying that without an Obama witness, "we cannot adequately evaluate your legislation."
In particular, Bishop said he wants Grand Canyon National Park Superintendent Steve Martin to testify at the hearing, noting Martin has previously stated concerns that mineral exploration poses a risk to the park.
Bishop is currently seeking the release of all communications between several environmental groups and top officials at Grand Canyon National Park to determine whether the officials improperly used their position to push a "radical" conservation agenda for the area (E&E Daily, July 10).
Schedule: The hearing is tomorrow at 10 a.m. in 1324 Longworth.
Witnesses: Matthew Putesoy, Havasupai Tribe; Elizabeth Archuleta, Coconino County Board of Supervisors; Kay Brothers, deputy general manager, Southern Nevada Water Authority; Madan Singh, director, Arizona Department on Mines & Mineral Resources; Mark Trautwein, former staffer to late House Interior Committee Chairman Morris Udall (D-Ariz.); David Kreamer, hydrologist; Bill Hedden, executive director, Grand Canyon Trust; Clarinda Vail, Red Feather Lodge Inc.; and Karen Wenrich, research geologist, U.S. Geological Survey (retired).