By Jack Caldwell - Mining Engineer - Robertson GeoConsultants

The news is that the area around the Grand Canyon is off-limits to uranium mining for the next 20 years.

“The Obama administration has banned new mining near the Grand Canyon, an area known to be rich in high-grade uranium ore reserves, the Associated Press reported.

The federal ban, announced on Monday, will shake off pressure from congressional Republicans and mining industry figures who wanted a policy change affecting a million acres, the AP reported. No mining will occur near the Grand Canyon for 20 years, Reuters reported.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar made the announcement, although he had imposed temporary bans on new mining claims already.

“A withdrawal is the right approach for this priceless American landscape,” Salazar said in a speech at the National Geographic Museum, the AP reported. “People from all over the country and around the world come to visit the Grand Canyon. Numerous American Indian tribes regard this magnificent icon as a sacred place, and millions of people in the Colorado River Basin depend on the river for drinking water (and) irrigation.”

Soon after, the National Mining Association expressed disappointment in the decision, Reuters reported. However, no immediate challenge has been announced. Uranium claims near the Grand Canyon have risen, from fewer than 1,000 claims a year in 2005, to more than 8,000 in 2009.”

Predictably there are and will be intense discussion and disagreement over this decision. Here is how one blogger frames the question:

"Mining is not evil in and of itself. We have a civilization that has chosen for better or worse to consume vast amounts of natural resources, and they have to come from somewhere. It’s clear that we need to use less, but there will always be a need for metals and other materials. Mining (and recycling) has to happen. But we still have choices as a society about where that mining should take place. Monetary gain cannot be the sole deciding factor.

Here’s the thing: So many timest he national interest is the justification given by those who want to mine or log or whatever. But when the price of the commodity drops, the companies are out of there for good. How important is it to mine coal within sight of Bryce Canyon National Park, or to mine uranium on the boundaries of Grand Canyon National Park? Is it important enough that companies will do it on a non-profit basis to support their country? It’s kind of like the question I keep asking about our involvement in wars of choice: are those wars important enough that the legislators who support them would put their own children on the front lines? That is how we should feel about our national parks as far as I am concerned."

The Uranium Blog, a pro-mining blog notes:

Republicans, including the former presidential candidate John McCain, condemned the move to withdraw lands from new mining claims as an emotional overreaction.

“This withdrawal is fuelled by an emotional public relations campaign designed by some of the same environmental groups whose long-time mission has been to kill mining and grazing jobs on the Arizona Strip, as well as tourism jobs at the Grand Canyon,” McCain told a hearing in Congress last year.

But Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation voters, argued on Monday that it made much more economic sense to protect the tourism industry that depended on the canyon.

An even further right perspective is expressed in the blog Conservative Outlooks. They write:

Then in June of 2011 Salazar announced he was extending the 2 year ban for another 6 months because of “fears” of a mining accident, water contamination and the Grand Canyon is a *national treasure* which shouldn’t be put “at risk.” What *risk* Mr. Salazar? Uranium is found in the cliffs lining the Colorado River and leeches into the river water naturally without any assistance from mining, as noted in a letter to Arizona Governor Jan Brewer by geologist M. Lee Ellison. Some of the key points he makes to her are:

  • “We conclude that even the most implausible accident would increase the amount of uranium in the Colorado River by an amount that is undetectable over amounts of uranium that are normally carried by the river from erosion of geologic deposits.”
  • “Even if the entire annual uranium production from an operating mine were somehow implausibly dumped into the river, the resulting increase in uranium concentration in river water would increase from 4.0 to 12.8 parts per billion (ppb) for one year, which is still far below the 30 ppb EPA Maximum Contaminant Level.”
  • “We believe the fears of uranium contamination of the Colorado River from mining accidents are minor and transitory compared to the amounts of uranium that are naturally and continually eroded into the river.” [Emphasis mine.]

Can’t stop Mother Nature, Ken. She’ll do what she wants anyway. So here we are 6 months later and you have extended the ban on new mining for 20 years which will make the U.S. dependent of foreign sources of uranium.

These different blogger perspectives capture the current divide and debate over the issue: to mine or not to mine?

I think there is a very different issue at stake in this debate. The latter blogger relies on the argument that America should produce its own uranium, and presumably not rely on uranium from Canada or Australia.

And that is the critical point that I wish to make, or at least ask: should every state and every country produce all the metals and minerals it needs, or may it justifiably protect its own environment while allowing others to mine in their countries, presumable to pollute their environment?

Is it moral to take mined products from countries that do not have the same standards as you do? Should you contribute to global environmental protection by mining only where it is logical and possible to do so at least environmental impact? Or do you have to have your mines regardless of how suitable the place is for mining and prudent environmental protection?

Another set of questions that is raised by the ban on uranium mining near the Grand Canyon is summarized in this question: should anybody and everybody be allowed to mine in a place just because the minerals are there, regardless of how many other mines there are in other places less affected by such mining?

I recognize that in posing this question I am saying the uranium mining in Saskatchewan is less environmentally disruptive than mining uranium around the Grand Canyon. Is this assumption justified only because there are fewer people near the Canadian uranium mines than near the Grand Canyon? Or is it that nobody wants to visit those cold, remote parts of Canada where there are plenty of uranium mines while everybody wants to visit the Grand Canyon?

I was at a party on Saturday night in honor of my 65th birthday. The usual debate arose around the fire pit as we smoked cigars and drank Guatemalan rum. The Republicans said it is all Obama’s fault and America could produce all the energy it needs if only we frac for enough natural gas and develop those oil shales in north-west Colorado. The Republicans were all for getting free of Canadian and Saudi Oil.

The Democrats said it is silly to blame on Obama trends that have been developing for twenty years and asked what is wrong with importing Canadian oil. They were not so sure of the morality of importing Saudi oil.

Keep in mind these are Orange County Republicans and Democrats and they are all my old friends, so they may be off the bell curve in terms of national politics.

Thus we return to the ban on uranium mining at the Grand Canyon unsure if this is a Republican vs Democrat divide, or a rich vs poor divide, or an America vs Canada divide, or simply a miner vs tourist divide.

The outcome of this debate is critical to another similar debate, namely fish vs mining as exemplified by the Pebble Mine question. (I recognize that is also a rich vs poor debate, and an I-own-a-hunting-lodge vs I-need-a-job debate.)

I suggest a national and international resource need assessment and environmental impact assessment on the Grand Canyon and Pebble Mine questions. Let us at the highest possible level ask the ultimate questions:

  • Are the enough mines in mining-suitable places to supply needs?
  • Are there some places where it is just stupid to mine?
  • Are there some places where it is overall not economic to mine because other economic activities make more for longer than any mine could?
  • What constitutes a suitable place to mine?

Personally, I still have to be convinced that Arizona needs it own uranium mines, or that there are not more profitable uranium deposits in Colorado or New Mexico. I remain to be convinced that we as a nation truly need uranium mines around the Grand Canyon when there are still so may less expensive deposits to mine in Canada and Australia. And I remain to be convinced that America’s national security is at risk if we do not mine uranium, period.

I am not anti-mining; quite the contrary. But that does not mean blind support for the right of every junior and friend of McCain to go staking claims that at best they will use as camping places near prime tourists spots. I am convinced that a saner, balanced approach to mining in suitable places rather than in every commons is the only way the miningindustry can retain credibility and supply human needs. Mining in unpopular places just brings further disrepute on the industry and makes it harder for all the others.

Let us hear your opinions. Please comment.

And here is one such comment from Arizona:

"Normally I enjoy reading what you write, even if I do not agree. The issue with thisparticular blog is that the news sources used apparently prefer the sensational rather than informational, cloaking facts behind words meant to cause a knee jerk reaction.

As I am sure you know, the withdrawal does not “ban” uranium mining. There are thousands of valid existing mining claims in the withdrawal area, with the projection of 11 uranium mines in the area in the next 20 years, including 4 that are already approved."