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BLM wants 20-year ban on uranium mining in N. Az

New claims would be halted for more than 1 million acres

WASHINGTON — The Bureau of Land Management is recommending a 20-year ban on new uranium mining claims for more than 1 million acres of federal land near the Grand Canyon.

The recommendation, to be officially published Thursday in the Federal Register, would allow mining to continue on any current mine or mine claim in the region, but it would stop all new claims.

The agency said the ban is needed so it can study the impact of a sudden increase in uranium mining bids on the Grand Canyon watershed. But opponents say the bureau’s decision is based on politics, not science.

“You don’t make a decision because there is a possible danger,” said Gregory Yount, manager of the Northern Arizona Uranium Project, a uranium exploration company. “There is nothing in the draft that would support the withdrawal, and there never was.”

The recommendation is still subject to a 30-day public comment period, after which Interior Secretary Ken Salazar – who has said he supports a 20-year ban – will make a final decision. If Salazar adopts the recommendation, Yount said he will sue to block the move.

But supporters Wednesday hailed the decision, which they said is a good move for the state and its residents in both the short- and long-term.

“It (a new-mining ban) would greatly reduce the possibility of contamination of both ground and surface water, which would benefit not only agriculture but also all the people that drink water from the Colorado River,” said Diane Braune, owner of the High Castle Ranch in Wilhoit, Ariz.

The bureau’s recommendation comes just two weeks after a group of Republican congressmen from Arizona and Utah introduced legislation that would have forced the Interior Department to open up the so-called Arizona Strip to new uranium mining.

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The lawmakers argued that new mines could pump millions of dollars into local economies through the creation of mining jobs and that safeguards are in place to protect the environment.

One of those lawmakers, Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Mesa, agreed with Yount that the decision was politically driven.

“If this study had relied more on science and less on a political agenda, it would confirm that uranium mining in northern Arizona can create jobs and stimulate the local economy without jeopardizing the beauty of the Grand Canyon,” Flake said Wednesday in a prepared statement.

In its announcement, the bureau acknowledged that uranium is a vital part of a comprehensive energy plan for the country. But it said “other federal lands in Arizona and other parts of the country remain open to hardrock mining claims, including uranium.”

The government announcement said 11 mines could still operate in the Arizona Strip under a new-claims ban.

Salazar first imposed a two-year moratorium on new mining around the Grand Canyon in 2009, to give his department time to study a long-term ban. In June, he extended the moratorium for an additional six months.

He has said repeatedly that he prefers a long-term ban, but that he would wait for the bureau’s recommendation before making a decision.

Ben Alterneder, a member of the Arizona Wildlife Federation board, said that a lot of outside interests opposed the decision to withdraw the land from mining. But those people did not have the same perspective on the issue as locals, he said.

“We need to make sure we have done our homework and have the science to make sure this (mining) does not affect our wildlife,” Alterneder said Wednesday.

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Department of the Interior

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, flanked by, from left, National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis, U.S. Geological Survey Director Marcia McNutt and Bureau of Land Management Director Bob Abbey, was at the Grand Canyon in June when they announced a temporary extension of a ban on new mining claims near the national park. The department now wants to extend the ban for 20 years.