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Washington • Mining claims threaten to mar the borders of 10 iconic national parks and wilderness areas, particularly the Grand Canyon, where there has been a 2,000 percent increase in uranium claims since 2004, according to a new report by the Pew Environment Group.
Mining companies have also filed legal claims for the rights to copper, gold and other metals around Mount Rushmore, Joshua Tree National Park and other famous Western refuges at an increased rate in the past five to seven years as the prices for metals rose worldwide.
Critics said claims in such sensitive places are facilitated by an 1872 law that allows corporations to stake out rights to federal lands for mining without competitive bids and to mine without paying royalties.
"The 1872 law as it applies everywhere is carte blanche: You extract everything you can and don't pay royalties on it," said Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz. "We're still dealing with an antiquated law that in its wake has left huge cleanup and contamination problems all over."
Concerns about the boom in uranium claims near the Grand Canyon prompted the Obama administration in 2009 to exclude 1 million acres from further claims for two years. It is now considering a 20-year extension of the exclusion.
Mining on existing claims around the Grand Canyon would go forward, and territory neighboring other parks remains open to more claims and mining.
While the pace of claims has slowed recently, there are now about 3,500 uranium claims around the canyon, according to Pew and the federal Bureau of Land Management.
Only about 50 of the uranium claims are being actively mined, said Rody Cox, a geologist with the BLM's Arizona Strip district office.
Uranium mining in the Southwest has a history of contamination. The Metropolitan Water District of Los Angeles and the Southern Nevada Water Authority have expressed concerns about possible damage to the Colorado River watershed, which could affect up to 25 million people, if uranium is mined around the Grand Canyon.
The Environmental Protection Agency has said removing contamination from hard-rock mining could be among the most expensive cleanups under the Superfund program for toxic sites.
There are fewer claims near other parks compared with those around the Grand Canyon, but are climbing, the Pew report noted. For example, about 950 claims have been made within five miles of of Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park in Utah, nearly all since 2005, according to the report, which is based on BLM data.
Environmentalists and some politicians have long urged Congress to amend the 1872 law to require competitive bidding and royalty payments, but with no success. Changes seem just as unlikely now. The House is committed to protecting industry in general, and the Senate is led by Harry Reid, whose home state of Nevada has vast gold mines. Competitive bids and royalties on gross proceeds from mineral sales are opposed by the National Mining Association.