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Bush administration’s uranium mining decision could affect tribes

WASHINGTON – The Bureau of Land Management, an agency within the Department of the Interior, in early December eliminated a regulation that gave two congressional committees the power to require the secretary of interior to set aside public lands from uranium mining and other extractive activities. The action, coupled with renewed federal interest in uranium mining, is causing concern for some Western tribes.

In effect, the Bush administration’s decision could open up public lands in and around the Grand Canyon to uranium mining. The aftereffects of such developments could have devastating effects on the health of tribes in and around the Grand Canyon, according to environmentalists and health and legal experts.

Roger Clark, an energy director with the Grand Canyon Trust environmental group, said that two tribes, the Havasupai and the Hualapai, could be directly affected by the decision. They are both located in the Grand Canyon region.

“The Havasupai have been ardent opponents of uranium mining in the watersheds above where they live,” Clark said. “If mining is occurring in these watersheds, it increases the potential for radioactive material to be transmitted to surface waters and groundwater aquifers.”

The Hualapai Tribe has also come out strongly against uranium mining in its area, having recently passed a tribal resolution banning the practice on its lands.

In late-March, Charles Vaughn, chairman of the Hualapai Tribe, raised several issues regarding uranium mining in testimony before the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands and the House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources.

“Although we understand that this industry may provide clean energy for the world market, it is the aftermath of this endeavor that is of grave concern to my people,” Vaughn testified.

“We do not want to see the byproducts of uranium production stored in places like Yucca Mountain for the remainder of our lifetimes and leave others with the concern of the potential harm this would bring to our progenitors Grandfather Water and Mother Earth.

“We as an indigenous people are taught to respect and hold sacred those elements that provide the essence of our life. It is out of this belief that we share our concerns for proposed uranium mining near Grand Canyon National Park.”

According to tribal creation stories, the Grand Canyon itself was formed by a Hualapai warrior.

Robert Hager, a lawyer who represents several Western tribes and bands, said that many tribal leaders have problems with the idea of resumption of large scale uranium mining, which he and many others believe is the intent of the Bush administration’s decision.

“This government is not the kind of government that can be relied upon to start up whole scale uranium mining again,” Hager said, citing health and legal concerns to back up his claim.

“Tribes should be especially concerned. … If they put in new power plants, where do you think they’re going to put them? They’re going to put them where there is the least political clout.”

Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva, D-Ariz., had previously authored a resolution through the House Committee on Natural Resources, which required the Interior secretary to protect lands around Grand Canyon National Park from uranium mining.

Like many tribal leaders, the congressman was upset by the administration’s action to upend the resolution.

“I am disappointed that the Interior Department under the Bush administration has chosen to throw out federal rules it finds inconvenient to its goal of allowing uranium mining within a few miles of our nation’s premiere National Park, the Grand Canyon,” Grijalva said in a statement.

“This last minute change puts at risk the health of millions of citizens of the West who rely on the Colorado River of the Grand Canyon for their drinking water supply, as well as visitors to the park and tribal communities within and around the Grand Canyon.”

Not all lawmakers were disappointed by the action, however. Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, the ranking member on the House Natural Resources Committee, commended outgoing Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne for the action.

“We cannot afford to have more of our nation’s vital minerals and energy supplies to be locked up by the ill-advised actions of a single Congressional Committee,” Young said in a statement.

Still, there were many detractors. Along with Grijalva and other members of U.S. Congress, Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, a Democrat, as well as several elected officials and citizens expressed concern by regulation’s elimination. Napolitano has been nominated to be Secretary of Homeland Security by President-elect Barack Obama.

While the Bush administration’s action for now has ended the temporary hold on uranium mining activities in the Grand Canyon region, Grijalva and others are confident that the situation will change after the Obama administration takes power.

“The fact remains that the power to require a temporary withdrawal still exists in federal law, regardless of whether the regulation is eliminated, and that law requires the secretary to withdraw the lands per our committee’s resolution in June,” Grijalva said in his statement.

“I will continue to fight this rule change and all midnight regulations to roll back protections for our environment which are coming down the pike before the new administration is sworn in.”

Hager added that he believes the Obama administration will use executive orders to quash the Bush administration’s last-minute efforts on increasing uranium mining.

“And it will end up being in the tribes’ best interests,” Hager said.

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