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House bill would nix Grand Canyon mining ban

WASHINGTON - A House subcommittee Thursday voted to nullify the Interior Department’s recently extended ban on new mining claims on more than 1 million acres of federal land around the Grand Canyon.

The move came in the form of a rider, added to the 2012 Interior and Environment Appropriations bill, that would cancel the six-month moratorium announced just over two weeks ago. The rider would also reserve authority to declare any future bans for Congress.

“The Obama Administration is stepping on Arizona’s economy and overstepping in terms of government regulations by banning new uranium mining claims in Northern Arizona,” said Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Mesa, in a statement after the bill made it out of subcommittee. It was Flake who added the rider.

The Interior Department is still reviewing the language, but Secretary Ken Salazar is “very opposed” to it, a spokeswoman said.

The ban remains in effect until the bill becomes law, and supporters of the ban said they will fight to keep that from happening.

“We’re obviously going to have an amendment to strike that rider,” said Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Tucson, whom Salazar has recognized for his conservation efforts.

Supporters of the mining-claims ban who were celebrating just over two weeks ago now find themselves preparing for a fight.

The National Parks Conservation Association said allowing mining claims to proceed would “severely degrade” Grand Canyon National Park.

Salazar’s decision “ensures future generations will be able to enjoy a Grand Canyon unmarred” by uranium mining and would protect the “fragile ecology” of the Colorado River, NPCA spokesman Craig Obey said in a statement. “The House rider would overturn this important decision.”

Meanwhile, opponents of Salazar’s moratorium are “ecstatic” at the preliminary approval of Flake’s language by the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies.

“This reaffirms that uranium mining is authorized by the (Arizona) Wilderness Act of 1984,” said Gregory Yount, manager of the Northern Arizona Uranium Project, a uranium exploration company. “My hope is that it (the bill) will be passed into law with the next budget.”

The full Appropriations Committee will hear the bill Tuesday. Even then, observers aren’t certain the bill will make it to the House floor before the August recess.

Salazar announced June 20 that he was extending a ban on new mining claims on 1,010,776 acres of federal land surrounding the Grand Canyon. A two-year ban had been set to expire July 20.

Officials from Interior, the U.S. Geological Survey and the National Park Service agreed that the extension was needed in order to fully evaluate the effects of increased uranium mining on the Colorado River.

Salazar also said during the announcement that his department’s preferred action when the evaluation was complete was a 20-year moratorium on new mining claims.

At the time, mining supporters said the department was misrepresenting the danger uranium mining poses. Now, it’s the supporters of the ban who are accusing the other side of misrepresentation.

“We’re going to get everyone on the record (with a vote), because they’re misleading the people of Arizona,” Grijalva said.

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Interior Dep't

A House subcommittee tried to reverse the Interior Department plan, announced last month, to extend a new mining claims ban on more than 1 million acres near the Grand Canyon. The department is considering a 20-year ban on more than 1 million acres, outlined in red on this map. Mining is already banned in cross-hatched areas.