Re-opening mines is a bad idea

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By Raúl Grijalva

Congressman Raúl Grijalva

Congressman Raúl Grijalva

When the world thinks about the American West, the Grand Canyon is often the first thing to come to mind. A few issues have clouded the image – immigration battles, Supreme Court cases – but the Canyon and its environs  remain the heart and soul of our region and one of the most iconic landscapes on Earth.

Its economic impact equals its reputation. According to a recent study by Michigan State University for the National Park Service, in 2011, 4.3 million visitors saw the Grand Canyon, generating $467 million in economic activity and supporting 7,361 jobs. In more ways than one, the Canyon really is a critical part of Arizona.

That’s why I was so encouraged last year when President Obama made the historic decision to protect nearly a million acres of federal land adjacent to Grand Canyon National Park for the next 20 years. Unfortunately, that move is under attack and may well be undone.

The Executive Order protecting the Canyon is being challenged by the mining industry in federal court. Just as seriously, the U.S. Forest Service has decided to allow the re-opening of the uranium-producing Canyon Mine in the Kaibab National Forest, just six miles outside the boundary of Grand Canyon National Park. The mine is within the area covered by last year’s withdrawal order. It can re-open because the withdrawal order only prevents new claims; old ones, however out of date, remain binding.

Canyon Mine was shut down in 1996. The Forest Service recently allowed it to re-open based on the 1986 Mining Plan of Operations and Environmental Impact Statement.

You read that right. A mine, shut down almost 20 years ago, is going to be re-opened and operated under an environmental review conducted almost 30 years ago.

The story doesn’t stop there. After approving the project, the Forest Service designated the Red Butte area adjacent to the mine as Traditional Cultural Property (TCP), recognizing it as a sacred site of the Havasupai Nation. As a TCP, the area is on the National Register of Historic Places and is under the jurisdiction of the National Historic Preservation Act, which guides the protection of historic and cultural resources, and formalizes consultation with tribal governments.

We don’t know yet what impacts Canyon Mine will have on Red Butte. Because the Forest Service didn’t initiate formal consultation before allowing the mine to re-open, concerns from the Havasupai and other interested stakeholders have been swept under the rug. That’s led, very predictably, to litigation. Now, the Forest Service is spending taxpayers’ money to defend a decision that shouldn’t have been made in the first place.

The unfortunate decision to permit the re-opening of Canyon Mine sends the wrong message about the importance of this precious watershed and the future of the 20-year withdrawal. I’ve introduced a bill, the Grand Canyon Watershed Protection Act, that would make the withdrawal permanent. Until that happens, I encourage federal land management agencies to err on the side of caution when it comes to permitting claims in the withdrawal area.

This area is very ecologically sensitive and is economically irreplaceable for the entire region. The Grand Canyon area already faces plenty of other external challenges, such as upstream pollution sources and too many competing claims on Colorado River water rights. We shouldn’t let short-sighted industry demands make things worse. Updated environmental reviews and diligent stakeholder consultation should be mandatory for any new mining activity, whether it’s six or 6,000 miles from the Grand Canyon.

The previously mentioned lawsuit challenges the withdrawal’s legality; Yount v. Salazar had a recent hearing in the U.S. District Court of Arizona. The ruling is expected in a matter of weeks. The decision will determine the federal government’s ability to make decisions about the fate of taxpayer-owned land. Keep an eye on it.

That we’re even in this position tells me that we need congressional leadership to provide permanent protection for the Grand Canyon Watershed, a network of waterways that provides drinking water to over 25 million Americans. I won’t stop working to protect this area so that future generations can enjoy it, just as I have and hope you will. If we’re not careful, it may not look the same much longer.  

Raúl Grijalva has been the Representative (D-Ariz.) for Congressional District 3 since 2002. He champions pro-environment causes as a member of the Committee on Natural Resources, chair of the National Parks, Forests and Public Lands Subcommittee and co-chair of the National Landscape Conservation System Caucus.

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