Environmental groups are sounding the alarm about a new set of recommendations from the Forest Service that include revising the Obama administration’s 20-year ban on new uranium mining near the Grand Canyon.
The recommendations are in response to a March executive order issued by President Donald Trump requiring agencies to review all actions that potentially burden the development of domestic energy resources. The order notes that agencies should pay particular attention to oil, natural gas, coal, and nuclear energy resources.
The proposal to revise the Grand Canyon-area mineral withdrawal is among 15 actions the Forest Service put forth in response to Trump’s executive order.
The recommendations are prioritized, and lifting or modifying the ban on issuing new mining leases is listed as 10th out of 11 priority levels.
The ban, issued by then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in 2012, covers more than 1 million acres of national forest and Bureau of Land Management land. In its response to Trump’s executive order, however, the BLM made no mention of revising the mining ban.
Environmental groups say the Trump administration’s move goes against strong public support for protecting the landscape around Grand Canyon National Park and puts the area’s lands, waters and wildlife at risk of adverse impacts from mining.
They had been expecting such a move by the Trump Administration, said Amber Reimondo, the Grand Canyon Trust’s energy program director.
“From the moment that the 2016 election was over with, the Trust was anticipating that with an administration sympathetic to industrial development we were going to see some kind of attack on the withdrawal. It was just a matter of when and how,” Reimondo said.
In its own analysis, the Forest Service noted that reversing the mineral withdrawal could mean additional costs to reexamine mineral data, evaluate potential withdrawal boundary changes and complete the environmental analysis and public notice requirements for such a decision.
That suggests the agency itself recognizes it would have to go through the same type of environmental review process to modify or overturn the mining ban as it did for implementing it, said Allison Melton, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity.
The agency proposed a three-year timeline for revising the mining withdrawal. It also stated that under the 1872 Mining Law, minerals extracted from public lands do not generate revenue for the United States Treasury.
Melton and Reimondo criticized the fact that the Forest Service’s analysis doesn’t mention the potential costs of uranium mining that could be born by the region’s tribes and potential impacts on natural resources and other areas of the economy, such as tourism.
“Uranium mining has a sorry history in the Southwest and aside from polluting water and the landscape, which is a cost to the public, it's also not uncommon for a mining company to file bankruptcy and leave the job and expense of cleanup to regulatory agencies and ultimately the taxpayers,” Reimondo wrote in a follow up email.
Environmental groups said they are ready to respond to any movement by the Trump Administration to modify or roll back the mining ban.
“We’re obviously going to engage fully in every capacity we can to keep this mineral withdrawal intact,” Melton said.
Federal scientists who were assigned to study the potential impacts of uranium mining near the Grand Canyon after Salazar’s 2012 decision are still far from any conclusions.
In a recent progress report, the U.S. Geological Survey said data gaps still exist when it comes to potential mining impacts to water quality of groundwater, springs, and seeps, and subsequent impacts to humans and wildlife as well as potential mining impacts to cultural and tribal resources.