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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Grand Canyon Safe from Uranium Mining

Air Date: Week of January 13, 2012

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(National Park Service)

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar recently signed a 20 year moratorium on mining for uranium near the Grand Canyon National Park. Jane Danowitz of the Pew Environment Group tells host Bruce Gellerman that it would protect close to the park but surrounding lands are still under threat.

Transcript

GELLERMAN- Well, while we still don’t know what to do with radioactive waste from nuclear plants - one thing we do know: the uranium fuel to power the AP 1000 reactors probably won’t be coming from the Grand Canyon. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has announced a 20-year moratorium on uranium mining near the National Park.

SALAZAR: When you look at a place like the Grand Canyon we carry out a great example through this protective measure because we’re saying, yes, this place is very special and we need to make sure that we can and will protect it.

Joining us to discuss the Obama Administration’s decision is Jane Danowitz, she’s Director of Public Lands for the Pew Environment Group. Hi Jane!

DANOWITZ: Thank you, very nice to be with you.

GELLERMAN: So why in the world would any one want to mine in the Grand Canyon?

DANOWITZ: Well, that’s a pretty good question. And I think if you told most Americans that uranium mining is allowed at the doorstep of the Grand Canyon National Park, it’s a pretty good bet that they’d stare at you in disbelief. So I think that’s one of the reasons why the President took the action that he did and decided to issue a moratorium on all new claims staking around the Grand Canyon for the next 20 years.

GELLERMAN: But there’s a lot of uranium around the Grand Canyon and there are companies that are mining it right now.


The Grand Canyon (National Park Service)

DANOWITZ: Experts will disagree how much uranium is there. I think one of the real problems here is that the United States still has a law in its books that was signed by Ulysses S. Grant in 1872, that does govern the mining of gold, uranium and other so-called hard-rock metals. And under that law, corporations, including those that are foreign-owned, can go almost anywhere on U.S. public lands, including places that are in close proximity to National Parks, and in National Forests, and mine.

And to add insult to injury, the metals that they can take, including gold and uranium, they can take for free without taxpayer compensation. This is in contrast to what oil and gas and coal companies have done for decades and that is, pay the federal treasury royalties.

GELLERMAN: So what’s in it for the U.S. taxpayer if we’re giving away these mineral rights for free?

DANOWITZ: Well, there’s nothing in it for the US taxpayer because not only are they giving away precious metals for free, but they’re bearing a significant burden of cleanup costs. The EPA - Environmental Protection Agency - just came out with new figures that found that once again the mining industry is the number one emitter of toxic pollutants in the country. And so, therefore, not only taxpayers are losing precious metals, but they’re also having to pay for cleanup for the environment.

GELLERMAN: Well is there any conversation in Congress at this point to change this 1872 law? You know, since we do have a budget crunch, we could use the money!

DANOWITZ: There is legislation that has been introduced to reform the 1872 mining law. And while Congress is busy with lots of issues and has had a difficult time getting consensus on most, the fact that the Grand Canyon is at risk from mining and the fact that because of this law more than 2.5 billion dollars of metals are taken off of public lands for free without taxpayer compensation, without compensating the treasury, without paying the treasury, that may well be an impetus for lawmakers from both sides of the aisle to take a look at this legislation and try to find some consensus around reforming it.


The Grand Canyon (National Park Service)

GELLERMAN: But proponents of uranium mining, including Arizona Republican Senator John McCain, say that the mines have created, you know, thousands of jobs, and could create many more, and be a source of domestic energy.

DANOWITZ: Well, there’s two parts there. One, certainly, according to the figures, tourism is, from the Canyon, is really the dominant industry in that region. The Grand Canyon attracts more than five million visitors each year - those visitors provide more than 12,000 full time jobs and generate a revenue of almost 700 million dollars annually to the region.

And the second point is that the companies that are operating, most of which in the canyon are foreign-owned, there’s a Canadian interest, there’s a Russian state-owned entity that has a significant number of claims, also the South Koreans, and at least the history has been that the uranium that is taken does not stay in the United States, but is shipped abroad.

GELLERMAN: You know, proponents of mining around the Grand Canyon say that this is simply President Obama kowtowing to his base - that there really is not an environmental reason or environmental reasons for mining not to go forward.


Aerial view of a uranium mine in Wyoming (Photo: Sky Truth)

DANOWITZ: I think when all is said and done, protecting the Grand Canyon is going to be looked upon as one of the most important decisions that the Obama Administration makes during its tenure. And it’s a decision that’s not only good for the environment, it’s good for the whole economic vitality of the southwest - it’s good for jobs, it’s good for tourism, and it’s good for protecting one of the most famous icons in the world.

GELLERMAN: Well Jane Danowitz, thank you so very much.

DANOWITZ: Thank you very much, really appreciate it.

GELLERMAN: Jane Danowitz is Director of Public Lands for the Pew Environment Group.

 

Links

PEW on Uranium Ban

 

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