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Do uranium mines belong near Grand Canyon?

Mining companies stake claims on federal land adjoining the park, while opponents say drinking water will be at risk.

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One such claim, by Quaterra Alaska Inc., the US subsidiary of Vancouver-based Quaterra Resources, Inc., was approved for exploratory drilling on June 27 – just two days after the House’s Natural Resources Committee vote that should have stopped such action.

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A Department of Interior spokesman says the BLM is still processing claims because the agency doesn’t consider the Congressional vote valid. In a July letter it argued that the committee didn’t have a quorum, a point disputed by the committee’s chairman and the House parliamentarian.

Mining regulations are tougher now

“They are charging forward,” says Taylor McKinnon, public lands director for the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group based in Tucson, Ariz.

Last month, the US Department of Energy approved 42 square miles for an expanded uranium mining program in the watershed of the Dolores River, a tributary of the Colorado. But the question of what impact dozens of new uranium mines across the entire Colorado River watershed might have – an environmental disaster or an energy bonanza with few ill effects – remains hotly debated.

“Old mines like the Orphan were mined in the 1950s under no federal regulations whatsoever,” says Eugene Spiering, vice president of exploration for Quaterra. “Most mines today are above the water table, which makes chances of leakage practically nil. What we have now is a well-regulated industry.”

Still, there has been no regionwide environmental assessment of the likely impact of a new uranium mining boom on the Colorado River, close observers say. Nor is such an evaluation apparently of much interest to federal land managers, if comments on the subject by a Department of Interior spokesman are any guide.

“We already have the Clean Water Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and others that require comprehensive analyses before any mining is done, so there won’t be impacts to the environment,” says Chris Paolino, a spokesman for the Department of Interior. “At this time we’re still evaluating plans on an individual basis, but [a regional study is] not something I can rule out.”

“We hear from the industry and federal government that today ‘we can do it safely,’ ” says Roger Clark, air and energy director for the Grand Canyon Trust, an environmental watchdog group. “But the burden of proof is on the proponents. Somebody needs to ask, ‘What is the cumulative threat to drinking water in the Colorado River – not just from radioactivity, but from arsenic and mercury from these mines?’”