Washington — Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar placed a 20-year ban Monday on new uranium mining claims around the Grand Canyon.
“We have been entrusted to care for and protect our precious environmental and cultural resources, and we have chosen a responsible path that makes sense for this and future generations,” Salazar said.
The ban means the government will not allow companies to develop new mining operations in 1 million acres of land around the iconic landmark, which is mostly owned by the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management.
It is a victory for conservation groups that have said mining could pollute the air, ground and water in the area, including the Colorado River, which supplies drinking water of millions of people in cities such as Phoenix, Los Angeles and Las Vegas.
Republican lawmakers introduced legislation in October to prevent the ban after learning that the Interior Department was considering it. In a series of statements following Salazar’s announcement Monday, they downplayed the environmental risks of mining and accused the Obama administration, in the words of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz, of making a “devastating blow to job creation in northern Arizona.”
“This withdrawal is simply another example of the Obama administration’s overreach that will stymie local economic growth and local job creation,” said Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz.
Responding to such criticism, Salazar said mining operations put at risk the tourism and recreation industry, which he said generates $3.5 billion in economic activity in the Grand Canyon area.
“Conservation is also part of job creation,” Salazar said, adding that 4 million people visit the Grand Canyon every year.
Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz, a member of the Natural Resources Committee, lauded the decision for protecting a national landmark. “The Grand Canyon is not a payday loan operation — it is a symbol of our nation,” he said in a statement.
Environmental groups applauded the decision and vowed to block attempts to override the ban.
“We’re going to be fighting tooth and nail,” said Nancy Pyne, preservation advocate at Environment America, an environmental advocacy group that has pushed for the withdrawal since 2007.
The ban is a culmination of a two-year Bureau of Land Management study of the environmental and economic effects of withdrawing the land from new mining claims.
Without the ban, 30 uranium mines could open in the area over the next two decades, with as many as six mines operating at one time, according to the study.
Salazar, a former senator from Colorado, implemented a temporary moratorium on new mining claims in the area in 2009, reversing a decision by the Bush Administration to open up the area to new claims.
The regulation will remain in place for two decades unless Congress or the president reverses it.
The 20-year moratorium is the longest possible under law and does not affect existing mining claims in the area.