In what is a defining moment, the Obama administration announced today measures that will protect the Grand Canyon from future mining activities on over a million acres of public land. In particular, today’s decision to institute a mining moratorium will foreclose against the permitting of new uranium mines in the Grand Canyon area. This is notable given that uranium mining, a questionable endeavor at best, has had an especially ugly history in the Grand Canyon region. By choosing to protect the Grand Canyon from new mining activities, President Obama and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar should be applauded for choosing to safeguard one of the world’s greatest natural treasures.
Pointedly, the Southwest is littered with thousands of abandoned uranium mines. As an example of the scale of the problem, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have spent $12 million dollars annually in an effort to just identify the number of old and abandoned mines in the Navajo Nation alone. And this program cannot even begin to address the costs necessary to remediate the hundreds of abandoned uranium mines that the EPA is discovering, for clean-up estimates approach a billion dollars. Putting aside environmental considerations for a minute, the financial toll alone should be reason enough for Sec. Salazar to approve a mining moratorium – based upon the fact that taxpayers have ended up with the remediation paycheck for an industry that has deliberately circumvented its financial responsibility to cover the toll for the damage that mining inevitably creates. Of course “remediate” is a euphemism at best, that should not be confused with “cleaned up.” Because once uranium mining activities are permitted to proceed, an impacted area will never be quite the same. Uranium mining is a dirty, dirty business that leaves a toxic and radioactive trail of impacts that cannot be easily contained. The evidence of this can be seen in the Grand Canyon itself, where a number of old and abandoned uranium mines are still a threat to the health of the Colorado River.
While today’s decision does not directly address the systemic threats associated with the uranium mining industry as a whole, Sec. Salazar has at the very least established a line in the sand: that there are places too great to allow such destructive practices to persist. Subsequently, the Grand Canyon is an obvious and deserving recipient of such a policy thanks to the leadership demonstrated by the administration on this issue.