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Lawmakers push to lift northern Arizona uranium-mining ban

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WASHINGTON – Arizona and Utah lawmakers touted a Senate bill Wednesday that would open more than 1 million acres in the northern part of Arizona to new uranium mining.

The Northern Arizona Mining Continuity Act would prevent the Department of the Interior from banning new uranium mines on the land, saying mining could bring hundreds of millions of dollars per year into local economies with minimal environmental risk.

The bill is a response to a temporary ban on new mines in the so-called Arizona Strip – federal lands next to Grand Canyon National Park – a ban that Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has said he would like to extend for 20 years. The department is currently studying the possibility.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said the ban sets a precedent that the Interior Department can change land-use agreements without congressional consent. He said the Interior Department breached an agreement it made with Congress through the Arizona Wilderness Act of 1984, which specifies uses of the Arizona Strip.

“I don’t know if any of my colleagues were consulted before this decision was made, but I sure as hell wasn’t,” said McCain, the main sponsor of the bill. He was joined Wednesday by Republican lawmakers from the two states.

The Republicans’ measure is the opposite of a House bill introduced this spring by Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Tucson. His bill, the Grand Canyon Watersheds Protection Act, would block further uranium mining operations in the Arizona Strip.

In a May letter to Salazar, Grijalva and 58 other legislators applauded Salazar’s ban, noting the proximity of existing mines to Grand Canyon National Park and its watersheds that serve parts of Arizona and California.

Grijalva on Wednesday challenged the Republicans’ claims that mines would not harm the environmentally important region and that they would bring economic prosperity.

“It’s cynical to tell the people of Arizona in a down economy that this bill will help them when we all know these jobs won’t be local, the profits will go out of state or overseas, and the uranium will be exported to the highest bidder,” he said in a prepared statement Wednesday.

But Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Flagstaff, insisted that additional uranium mining could bring hundreds of millions of dollars per year into local economies. Gosar, whose district includes part of the Arizona Strip, said environmental risks are minimal with proper oversight and that there is a sufficient buffer between mining claims and the Colorado River and its watersheds to prevent harm if an accident should occur.

“I’ve visited the mining operations,” he said after the news conference. “I’ve seen the construction of these mines…. Mining isn’t the same as it was in the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s.”

A draft environmental impact statement on Interior’s proposed 20-year mining ban drew nearly 300,000 public comments before it was published in February. A final report, with Salazar’s recommendations, is slated for release by the end of the year.

Under any proposed ban, 11 currently approved mines could still operate.

Salazar has promoted a multiyear ban as a way to gather long-term evidence on the mines’ impact, so that the right decision can be made with decades of research to back it up.

A 20-year ban is one of three options in the environmental impact statement. Such a ban “could help us answer critical gaps in our knowledge about water quality and environmental impacts of uranium mining in the area,” Interior Department spokesman Adam Fetcher wrote in an email Wednesday.

But Rep. David Schweikert, R-Scottsdale, said a mining ban is not only a bad idea but that it would “open the doors for a new round of battles” on land-use issues thought to be resolved by the Arizona Wilderness Act of 1984.