A little more than a year after taking credit for an Obama-era effort to protect more than a million acres of land near the Grand Canyon from uranium and other hard rock mining, the Trump administration is voicing opposition to legislation that would permanently safeguard the same area.
It has also unveiled a new strategy for boosting domestic production of uranium and other critical minerals ― a move that has sparked fear among environmentalists.
In January 2018, the Interior Department published a “comprehensive list of accomplishments” under former Secretary Ryan Zinke. Among its thin list of conservation achievements, the agency claimed that it “successfully defended a mineral withdrawal near the Grand Canyon,” which, as HuffPost previously reported, was a suit initiated after the Obama administration imposed a 20-year ban on new uranium and other hard rock mining in the area surrounding Grand Canyon National Park.
Democrats in the House are now considering legislation that would set a permanent moratorium. The House Natural Resources Committee held a hearing Wednesday to discuss legislation from Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) that would ban all new mining claims there.
Michael Nedd, the deputy director of operations at the Bureau of Land Management, testified that the bill goes too far.
“The Department has concerns about the size and scope of the withdrawal contained in the legislation,” Nedd said.
He noted that the Trump administration has prioritized domestic mineral production and that uranium is among those that Interior has identified as “critical” to economic and national security. If Congress moves forward with a permanent mining ban near the Grand Canyon, Interior recommends “boundary adjustments to ensure local availability of mineral materials for nearby communities and to enable environmentally responsible development of critical minerals, such as uranium,” he said.
Roger Clark, a program director at Grand Canyon Trust, an Arizona-based advocacy group and one of several defendants in the Obama-era lawsuit, told HuffPost that Nedd’s comments signal a clear flip in the agency’s position under David Bernhardt, a former oil and mining lobbyist who replaced Zinke as Interior chief earlier this year.
“We’re not surprised,” Clark said.
But Interior spokeswoman Molly Block told HuffPost Bernhardt previously met with supporters of the mineral withdrawal and “asserted he had ‘no reason’ to support lifting the ban.”
“This remains Secretary Bernhardt’s current position,” she said.
Where the administration stands on the issue has always been muddy. The U.S. Forest Service recommended in an October 2017 report that the White House consider lifting the mining ban on the million acres of federal land near the Grand Canyon. Doing so, it said, “could re-open lands to mineral entry pursuant to the United States mining laws facilitating exploration for, and possibly development of, uranium resources.”
Adding to speculation that the administration might soon lift the moratorium near the Grand Canyon is a lengthy report published Tuesday by the Commerce Department that outlines the administration’s strategy for reducing America’s dependence on foreign minerals. The report calls for speeding up permitting for mining operations, increased mapping and a “thorough review” of all mining bans on federal lands. The document notes that “many mineral resources cannot be accessed due to existing withdrawals, reservations, and other land-use restrictions.”
Grijalva called the deregulation strategy “one of the worst” industry handouts of Trump’s tenure.
“Unchecked mining is already damaging inhabited areas around the Grand Canyon and other sites around the country, and we can expect much more severe impacts to public lands nationwide if these recommendations go into effect,” he said in a statement.
The report only reinforces opponents’ push for a permanent ban, Clark said.
“The administration has not clearly signaled that they are going to take the Grand Canyon mineral withdrawal head-on,” he said. “But they’re using all other tactics and alibis, like naming [uranium] a critical mineral.”
During a public comment period last year, Interior received dozens of requests to exclude the radioactive ore from its final list of “critical minerals,” published in May 2018. The agency ultimately rejected those calls. Among the uranium companies that urged the agency to keep uranium on the list was Energy Fuels Resources, the firm that owns the idle Daneros uranium mine near Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument and lobbied the Trump administration to shrink the protected site.