WASHINGTON (CN) – The House of Representatives on Wednesday passed two bills to protect a combined 1.3 million acres of land in Arizona and New Mexico from new mining and drilling operations.
The largest bill would set aside 1 million acres in northern Arizona, making permanent a 20-year moratorium on uranium claims surrounding the Grand Canyon that the Department of the Interior put in place in 2012. The bill would prevent new mining claims in the area and does not affect existing operations.
Barack Obama’s Interior Department put that moratorium in place to prevent new mining operations so the government could collect more information about environmental impacts mining would have on the area. But the Trump administration has taken steps that could boost uranium mining efforts, including its 2018 move to add the mineral to a list of critical minerals for the first time. This has led to concerns from advocates that new mines could soon start cropping up around the Grand Canyon.
The area the bill sets aside includes the largest uranium deposits in the country where mining has taken place for decades, leaving the region dotted with both active and abandoned mines. Some of the mines have flooded, threatening to contaminate surrounding water and land.
Amber Reimondo, the energy program director at the Grand Canyon Trust, said the threats of uranium contamination are especially acute around the Grand Canyon because groundwater flow can be hard to predict due to the area’s geology.
“There is not a lot of certainty about the direction and speed of groundwater flow,” Reimondo said in an interview. “So a uranium mine being approved at point x, there’s no way it can be guaranteed to have zero impact on groundwater seeps and springs in the Grand Canyon region.”
Environmental groups hailed the bill as critical to protecting water quality in the Colorado River, the iconic national park and its surrounding regions. They also say uranium mining efforts particularly threaten Native American tribes in the area and that the bill will help cut off that threat as well.
Downplaying concerns that the bill would harm the local economy, Athan Manuel, the director of the Sierra Club’s Lands Protection Program, said the 4 million people who come to marvel at the Grand Canyon each year are an economic engine that critics of the legislation should consider alongside the mining interests.
“That’s a renewable resource,” Manuel said in an interview. “People go every year and spend money in that part of Arizona. So if you’re concerned about the economic viability of that region, the last thing you want to do is damage the surrounding area to that national park.”
Representative Raul Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat who sponsored the legislation, said the bill is important to protecting the iconic natural landscape and the Native American tribes that have lived near it for centuries.
“We shouldn’t be mining for uranium around the Grand Canyon, period,” Grijalva said on the House floor Wednesday.
The bill passed 236-185. The White House has threatened to veto it, saying it puts far too much uranium off limits from mining.
“The United States has an extraordinary abundance of mineral resources, both onshore and offshore, but this legislation would restrict our ability to access critical minerals like uranium in an area known to have them in large supply,” the White House said in a statement of administration policy.
Representative Paul Gosar, an Arizona Republican whose district includes lands the bill would set aside, opposed the bill, arguing it would harm the local economy of the region and threaten U.S. energy independence, leaving countries like China and Russia to take the uranium market.
“This has nothing to do with the Grand Canyon,” Gosar said on the House floor. “This has everything to do with monopolization and removing part of the segment that we promised future generations for that investment. That’s what we’ve done. That’s what the other side wants to do.”
The other bill the House passed Wednesday withdraws from development 316,000 acres of oil, gas and other minerals owned by the federal government around New Mexico’s Chaco Culture National Historical Park. The area, which has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the sacred homeland of native tribes and boasts numerous important archaeological sites.
That bill passed 245-174 on Wednesday.