Grand Canyon uranium mining temporarily on hold

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FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. - The Grand Canyon lies just 90 miles north of Arizona;s San Francisco Peaks, where in early August tribes lost the most recent skirmish in a battle to stop a ski resort from making snow from reclaimed wastewater.

Like the peaks, the canyon is central to the cosmology of the Hopi and other tribes in the Four Corners region. The site is also a national park. Recent attempts to preserve the canyon from uranium mining have met with some success, but the battle is far from over and the chances of winning it, based on the results of efforts to protect other Native sacred sites, are far from certain.

Rising oil and natural gas prices have led to a resurgence of interest in nuclear power in the United States. Though no new nuclear power plants have been constructed here since the 1970s, several owners of existing plants have applied to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to extend their operating licenses by another 20 years and companies have begun filing early applications for construction of new power plants.

Whether those plants will be built depends primarily on two unanswered questions: Will sufficient federal guarantees for the loans to finance the new plants become available to make owners willing to take the risks involved? And can the matter of where to store waste from nuclear power plants be solved or legislated away?

But new or old, nuclear power plants here and around the world require fuel. The Four Corners area is the prime location for mining uranium in the United States.

Within the past five years, mining claims on lands next to Grand Canyon National Park have increased greatly, raising concerns that the mining could contaminate the park and the Colorado River.

In December, the Interior Department decided to allow the British-owned company VANE Minerals to begin exploratory drilling for uranium a few miles from the park boundaries without conducting an environmental impact analysis.

Seeing the possibility of another uranium boom in the region before the impacts of the first one have been fully catalogued, let alone remediated, brought a strong response from tribes, local populations and environmental groups.

In 2005, Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr. signed into law the Din? Natural Resources Protection Act, prohibiting uranium mining and milling in ''Navajo Indian country.''

The act stated that according to fundamental Navajo laws, ''certain substances in the Earth [doo nal yee dah] that are harmful to the people should not be disturbed, and that the people now know that uranium is one such substance, and therefore, that its extraction should be avoided as traditional practice and prohibited by Navajo law.''

In March, Shirley testified at a congressional field hearing in Flagstaff, initiated by Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., chairman of the Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands. Shirley reiterated the Navajo Nation's position. Kaibab Paiute Tribal Chairwoman Ono Segundo and Havasupai Tribal Chairman Don Watahomigie also testified.

Soon after, the Sierra Club, Grand Canyon Trust and other environmental groups won a restraining order to temporarily halt VANE Mineral's drilling near the Grand Canyon.

Grijalva then introduced legislation to withdraw approximately 628,886 acres in the Kanab Creek area and 112,655 in House Rock Valley, managed by the Bureau of Land Management, as well as 327,367 acres in the Tusayan Ranger District of the Kaibab National Forest south of the canyon, from uranium mining - a total of about 1 million acres of land. The Grand Canyon Watersheds Protection Act, which would affect approximately 1,100 mining claims, was referred to the Committee on Natural Resources.

In June, the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee passed an emergency measure ordering Interior to withdraw the federal lands from mining for up to three years. The vote was 20 - 2.

Interior responded July 15 by stating that the measure was passed without a quorum of members of the committee being present, making it invalid. A quorum, stated Matt Eames, Interior's director of the Office of Congressional and Legislative Affairs, is 25.

The next day, House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., wrote to Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne and said the department was mistaken in its interpretation of House rules and therefore the emergency measure must be honored.

''You are required to withdraw those lands specified in the June 25, 2008, Resolution of the Committee on Natural Resources,'' Rahall wrote.

And there the matter lies, quite possibly until a new administration takes office. Presumptive presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has called for the construction of 45 new nuclear power plants in the U.S., while his opponent, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., has been almost silent on nuclear energy; he has said that his priority would be to solve the nuclear waste problem.