In a move that could be interpreted as a thumb in the eye of congressional oversight, the Bush administration is moving to revoke Congress's authority to direct the Interior secretary to withdraw public lands from mining under certain situations, according to U.S. Representative Raul Grijalva.
At stake is the current ability of the House Natural Resources Committee and the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee to direct the Interior secretary to withdraw certain lands in emergencies so Congress can determine whether permanent protection for the lands in question is necessary.
Earlier this summer, you might recall, Congressman Grijalva announced that he believed sufficient threat existed to Grand Canyon National Park to withdraw more than 1 million acres of surrounding federal acreage from the possibility of being mined for uranium.
The issue of uranium mining and the Grand Canyon surfaced late last year after the U.S. Forest Service decided, without holding any public hearings, to allow for exploration of the radioactive fuel within a few miles of the park. Earlier this year three groups filed a lawsuit to halt the exploration, saying the Forest Service failed to follow National Environmental Policy Act guidelines when it authorized Vane Minerals to drill test holes at up to 39 sites near the Grand Canyon.
According to Congressman Grijalva, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management now intends to rescind the rule that allows the House Natural Resources Committee, which the Arizona Democrat chairs, and the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee to direct the Interior secretary to withdraw certain lands in emergencies. And he says the BLM will give the public only 15 days to comment, and has provided no environmental analysis of the impacts of the proposed action.
"It is clear that this last-minute move by the Bush administration, put out right before a three-day weekend when Congress is not in session, is designed to undermine our effort to protect the Grand Canyon from uranium mining and contamination," contends Congressman Grijalva. "For the last eight years, the Bush administration has done everything in its power to reward its friends in industry who seek to exploit our public lands for mineral wealth, timber, etc. but this goes beyond the pale.
"Instead of giving Congress time to consider how to protect the crown jewel of our National Park System, the Grand Canyon, from the impacts of dangerous and potentially life-threatening uranium mining, the department is choosing instead to rush this regulation through, giving the public almost no time to comment."
According to the congressman, the emergency withdrawal authority has only rarely been used. It was previously used three times by Congressman Mo Udall to protect important lands that were under threat, and most recently when Mr. Grijalva notified the secretary to withdraw lands around Grand Canyon National Park from uranium mining.
Regarding Mr. Grijalva's own request to withdraw the 1 million acres from mining, his office says the Interior Department has so far refused to comply with the emergency withdrawal notification, allowing uranium mining to continue on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.
"The Interior Department is being sued by environmental groups for failing to comply with its own regulations that require it to withdraw lands when notified to do so by the Committee on Natural Resources. Instead of following the law and their own regulations, they are attempting to throw out the rule, subverting the will of Congress and the people of the United States who want to see the Grand Canyon protected," says the Democrat.