ST. GEORGE – County commissioners and concerned citizens from Utah and Arizona met at a public hearing Wednesday to discuss the Secretary of the Interior’s proposal to put a moratorium on uranium mining on the Arizona Strip. (See previous story)
Headed by the Arizona-Utah Local Economic Coalition, the hearing was held at the Washington County Administration Building on Sept. 7. Co-chaired by Washington County Commissioner Alan Gardner and Mohave County Commissioner Buster Johnson of Arizona, the Coalition heard testimony for and against a proposal of Ken Salazar, the Secretary of the Interior. Salazar plans to close one million acres of the Arizona Strip to multiple use for the next 20 years.
Uranium mining is seen as the primary target of Salazar’s proposal, as the bulk of current mining activity takes place in the one million acre zone. If passed, future mining claims will be out of the question, while current ones will become subject to review.
And just what is the reason for the possible closure of the Arizona Strip to mining? The problem lies in concerns over potential contamination caused to water by uranium mining. It is also believed that the mining will lead to the contamination of the Colorado River and adversely affect the scenery of the Grand Canyon. In 2009, the Department of the Interior organized an Environmental Impact Study to look into the matter.
Environmental impact studies had already been done by the US Geological Survey and the Arizona Geological Survey. According to Johnson, the studies done by the USGS and AGS found no evidence in the Colorado River of contamination due to mining. Traces of uranium that were found turned out to be there due to naturally occurring erosion.
According to the AGS study, an entire year’s worth of mined uranium could be dropped into the Colorado River and the results would be on the same level as natural erosion.
Dave Clark, a former Utah state senator, testified at the hearing and stated that, according to the USGS, the Arizona Strip contains at least half of the United States’ undiscovered uranium, or an estimated 326 million pounds. All together, that is enough energy potential to power a city the size of Los Angeles for 150 years.
“We need to focus on the facts, and not scare tactics,” Clark said.
One of the recurring themes, heard in testimony after testimony, was the inconsistent manner of how the Federal government was handing itself concerning the matter.
President Barack Obama names energy independence and job creation as two of his primary goals for the country. This means producing more domestic energy and providing an environment in which business and commerce can once again flourish. From opinions given in the hearing, Obama and Salazar are not on the same page.
Currently 90 percent of the uranium used in American nuclear reactors – both nuclear power plants and the reactors that power the ships of the United States Navy – is imported. Uranium from the Arizona Strip could help change that number.
As for the mining that occurs on the Arizona Strip, it not only provides jobs to the miners, but also to associated industries in nearby communities, as stated at the meeting. Like the boom towns of the “old west,” many businesses are tied to the mining industries in one way or another. One need not be a miner in a mining town to be adversely affected by a mine’s closing.
Why shut down mining when the country already struggles in the current economy? That was a question Clark would like to ask Salazar.
The counties of Garfield, Kane, Mohave, and San Juan face the risk of losing hundreds of jobs if the mines close.
“I can’t understand why the US government would treat uranium in the Arizona Strip as unimportant,” said Rick Bailey, the administrator for San Juan County.
Arizona Governor Jan Brewer and Utah Governor Gary Herbert, along with senators and representatives from both states, have sent their questions directly to Washington either by letter or in person.
Bob Weidner, a consultant with the American Clean Energy Resources Trust, who represents the interests of Utah and Arizona in Washington DC, said that such questions have been met with a “Thank you for your interests. We’re looking into the matter,” response.
Issues of government-overreach were also addressed.
Weidner said that Congress must reassert itself as the branch of government that manages federal lands. Such power is not to be left in the hands of one man who can determine the fate of thousands of people with the stroke of a pen.
Weidner also condemned the federal government for not doing more to interact with the local communities that would be impacted by the multiple use being withdrawn from the Arizona Strip. This was a united complaint of the counties involved in the hearing, as well as the towns of Blanding, Utah, and Fredonia, Ariz.
During his testimony, which was echoed by others, Clark said that the Department of the Interior was required by law to work with the local communities that were to be involved in the area of the EIS. It didn’t happen, at least not at first. Local governments did not become involved in the EIS until after the fact, when the study was already well underway.
Other complaints against the impact study included its underestimation of the amount and value of the uranium in the Arizona Strip. Repeated references to the study’s lack of information on the negative social-economic impact on the human element were also shared among the testifiers.
John Harja, the Director of the Governor’s Public Lands Policy Coordination Office, said that the EIS states that there are no negative effects on the Arizona Strip due to mining. He also said that the proposed withdrawal made no sense, and that the impact study itself was not very well done.
Scott Florence, Bureau of Land Management’s director of the Arizona Strip District, said “a project of this magnitude makes it hard to get things right the first time.”
Florence told the Coalition that the version of the EIS they received was the first draft, and that a final version was forthcoming. A final draft, he said, is in the works that will address some of the complaints mentioned during the hearing. He also reminded everyone that Salazar had the final say when it came to the Arizona Strip. If Salazar withdraws multiple use, then the states will have to appeal on the Federal level.
Parties arguing for the withdrawal of public use were the Kaibab Band of Paiute Indians and the Citizens for Dixie’s Future. The Kaibab band put forth the petition that mining exploited the land and would damage the Grand Canyon, while the Citizens for Dixie’s Future primarily advocated for the general health and safety of the populace.
The next public hearing on the Arizona Strip will be held on Oct. 12, in St. George.
In order to review the hearing in its entirety, go to Dixie State College’s Video-on-Demand site.
Copyright 2011 St. George News. This material may not be published or rewritten without written consent.