Salazar one critical step closer to banning new uranium mining claims near Grand Canyon

The Obama administration today took a critical final step toward withdrawing 1 million acres of federal land around Grand Canyon National Park from new uranium mining claims, drawing praise from conservation groups battling a mining rush that started several years ago.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) issued a final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) that identifies the full withdrawal as the preferred alternative. The EIS will be published by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the Federal Register on Thursday, triggering a 30-day public comment period. After that, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar can finalize the controversial move that Republicans have been lining up to try to block legislatively.

“The Grand Canyon is an iconic place for all Americans and visitors from around the world,” BLM Director Bob Abbey said in a press release. “Uranium remains an important part of our nation’s comprehensive energy resources, but it is appropriate to pause, identify what the predicted level of mining and its impacts on the Grand Canyon would be, and decide what level of risk is acceptable to take with this national treasure.

“The preferred alternative would allow for cautious, continued development with strong oversight that could help us fill critical gaps in our knowledge about water quality and environmental impacts of uranium mining in the area.”

Once finalized, the withdrawal – which precludes any new claims under the 1872 Mining Law – does not block current mining operations in the area or new mining on valid, existing claims.

Outdoor recreation groups, conservationists and hunting and fishing groups praised the final EIS.

“A healthy and sustainable Colorado River free from toxic contamination means that families and outdoor enthusiasts will continue to visit and enjoy the communities close to its banks,” Protect the Flows spokeswoman Molly Mugglestone said in a release. “Healthy rivers translate to the healthy local economies that power a robust multi-billion-dollar national recreation economy.”

Protect the Flows is a coalition of businesses in seven states in the Colorado River drainage that depend directly on the river.

The American Southwest started to see a resurgent interest in uranium mining several years ago as prices spiked up in anticipation of new nuclear power reactors to replace coal-burning facilities targeted amidst growing concerns about global climate change. But the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster in Japan last spring has had a chilling effect on the new nuke boom. Colorado continues to see foreign investment, however, in proposed mines and a new mill in Montrose County.