“It is the right thing to do by way of protecting the Grand Canyon, the Colorado River and the millions of Americans who live and rely on the waters of that great basin,” Salazar said in an NPR interview. Salazar announced the ban at a ceremony held January 9 at the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C.
Some of the richest uranium ore reserves in the country surround the Grand Canyon. When the price for uranium spiked a few years ago, mining companies staked claims in the thousands on the land encircling the national state park.
The ban has sparked a debate over mining jobs and tourism dollars in Arizona, which relies heavily on both industries. The ban “comes at the expense of hundreds of high-paying jobs and approximately $10 billion worth of activity for the Arizona economy,” Arizona Governor Janice K. Brewer, a Republican, said in a statement.
Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, called the ban a “devastating blow to job creation in northern Arizona,” reported Bloomberg BusinessWeek.
But environmentalists and those interested in safeguarding the $3.5 billion spent by visitors at the Grand Canyon each year praise the temporary mining moratorium. “When families travel to see the Grand Canyon, they have a right to expect that the only glow they will see will come from the sun setting over the rim of this natural wonder, and not from the radioactive contamination that comes from uranium mining,” said Rep. Edward Markey of Massachusetts, the senior Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee.
Salazar also underscored the economic impact of the tourism industry in Arizona. “Tourism, leisure are very much a part of job creation of the United States,” he said. “The jobs associated to the Grand Canyon are not jobs that can be exported anywhere, those are truly American jobs.”
For the Navajo Nation, which greatly suffered from the Cold War uranium boom that lead to decades of cancer deaths and governmental neglect, the ban holds even greater significance.
Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly released the statement: “I support Secretary Salazar’s announcement regarding withdrawing public lands from new uranium mining. The Navajo Nation is against uranium mining and has banned uranium mining since 2005 because of the health issues related to mining the radioactive material. I support the announcement because of what we have experienced as Navajo people. We have lost the quality of life for many of our Navajo people who worked in the mines including their families and affected communities. Sec. Salazar’s decision protects the water and land, but most importantly, the health of the people.”
While the ban prohibits new claims in the area, previously approved mining and new projects on claim sites with existing rights will be allowed, according to an Interior statement. The Bureau of Land Management projects that up to 11 uranium mines could be developed based on pre-existing rights.