Diné politicians applaud uranium ban

By Cindy Yurth
Tséyi' Bureau

CHINLE, Ariz., Jan. 13, 2012

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(Courtesy photo - Tara Alatorre/Cronkite News Service)

The Canyon Mine in the Kaibab National Forest south of the Grand Canyon was created in the 1980s to tap uranium deposits.

S everal Diné politicians this week issued statements applauding Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's recent decision to temporarily withdraw a million acres of federal land near the Grand Canyon from new uranium mining.

It put them at odds with Arizona's Republican governor, Jan Brewer, who decried the loss of jobs and an estimated $10 billion blow to Arizona's economy.

President Ben Shelly and congressional candidate Wenona Benally Baldenegro both said the Navajo people have borne the brunt of the health fallout from uranium mining and don't want it anywhere near their reservation, while Arizona State Sen. Jack C. Jackson, D-Window Rock, called the Grand Canyon a "splendor" that must be protected as a legacy for future generations.

"The Navajo Nation is against uranium mining and has banned uranium mining since 2005 because of the health issues related to mining the radioactive material," Shelly said in a press release. "I support the announcement because of what we have experienced as Navajo people.

"We have lost the quality of life for many of our Navajo people who worked in the mines including their families and affected communities," he said. "Secretary Salazar's decision protects the water and land, but most importantly, the health of the people."

Baldenegro, who hails from Kayenta, said she has seen first-hand the effects of uranium mining and wants to see old mining areas cleaned up before anybody even starts talking about new mining.

"Instead of pushing to open up the Grand Canyon for contamination, elected officials such as Rep. (Paul) Gosar should be demanding that uranium companies take responsibility for cleaning up the radioactive waste they left behind years ago that continue to contaminate the water we drink and the air we breathe," Baldenegro was quoted as saying in a press release from her campaign headquarters.

In addition to protecting the health of the people, the ban is "responsible stewardship of our public lands," Jackson said.

"Arizona is known worldwide as the Grand Canyon State," Jackson wrote in a statement released to the press. "This decision will ensure the preservation and enjoyment of this splendor for future generations."

Brewer, on the other hand, called the ban "yet another instance of the federal government engaging in excessive and unnecessary regulation, which is impeding the creation of jobs and economic growth." She estimated that it will cost the state hundreds of high-paying jobs and $10 billion in economic activity.

"Our state has years of experience with uranium mining in northern Arizona. Further, both the Arizona Geological Survey and Arizona Department of Environmental Quality have submitted findings that uranium mining - conducted lawfully and with proper oversight - represents a minimal environmental risk to the Grand Canyon and Colorado River," Brewer was quoted as saying in a press release.

Baldenegro countered that the main beneficiaries of uranium mining are the overseas companies that are filing the claims.

"We should be addressing the fact that many of the uranium stakeholders in the Grand Canyon are foreign interests," she wrote, "including Rosatom, Russia's state atomic energy corporation. I have a serious problem with foreign companies coming into Arizona, taking our resources, and polluting our air and water in the process."

The new policy bans new uranium and other hardrock mining in an area on both rims of the Grand Canyon for the next 20 years.

It does not prohibit previously approved uranium mining, or new projects that could be approved on claims and sites with valid existing rights.

According to a White House press release, up to 11 uranium mines, including four that are currently approved, could still be developed based on valid pre-existing rights - "meaning the jobs supported by mining in the area would increase or remain flat as compared to the current level," the release states.

By comparison, during the 1980s, nine uranium mines were developed on these lands and five were mined out. Without the withdrawal, there could be 30 uranium mines in the area over the next 20 years, including the four that are currently approved, with as many as six operating at one time, according to an environmental impact statement done on the rule.

The withdrawn area includes 355,874 acres of Kaibab National Forest; 626,678 acres of Bureau of Land Management lands; and 23,993 acres of split estate - where surface lands are held by private owners while subsurface minerals are owned by the federal government.

The affected lands, all in the vicinity of the Grand Canyon or Grand Canyon National Park, are located in Mohave and Coconino counties. Some are immediately adjacent to the Navajo Nation.

During the two-year study period, the proposed ban generated 350,000 comments, according to BLM.

People from more than 90 nations weighed in, calling the Grand Canyon not only a national but also an international treasure.

In the press release, Salazar said his decision will "provide adequate time for monitoring to inform future land use decisions in this treasured area, while allowing currently approved mining operations to continue as well as new operations on valid existing mining claims.

"A withdrawal is the right approach for this priceless American landscape," Salazar said. "People from all over the country and around the world come to visit the Grand Canyon.

"Numerous American Indian tribes regard this magnificent icon as a sacred place and millions of people in the Colorado River Basin depend on the river for drinking water, irrigation, industrial and environmental use," he said.

Although the ban is ostensibly for 20 years, it could be eliminated or modified by a future Interior secretary.

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