An email trail uncovered by House Republicans voices the belief that the U.S. Bureau of Land Management relied more on "confusion and obfuscation" than science in justifying a 20-year ban on new hard-rock mining claims on 1 million acres surrounding Grand Canyon National Park.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar pointed to the BLM's final environmental impact statement in January when he ordered a 20-year moratorium on hard-rock mining on the land to protect the national park and its waters.
"Numerous American Indian tribes regard this magnificent icon as a sacred place and millions of people in the Colorado River Basin depend on the river for drinking water, irrigation, industrial and environmental use," Secretary Salazar said at the time. "We have been entrusted to care for and protect our precious environmental and cultural resources, and we have chosen a responsible path that makes sense for this and future generations.”
But emails from Larry Martin, a hydrogeologist with the National Park Service Water Resources Division, expressed his opinion that the threats cited in the draft EIS were overblown.
"My personal and professional opinion is that the potential impacts stated in the DEIS as (sic) grossly overestimated and even then they are very minor to negligible," Mr. Martin wrote in an email to colleagues on March 7, 2011, when the draft EIS was open for public comments. "The DEIS goes to great lengths in an attempt to establish impacts to water resources from uranium mining. It fails to do so, but instead creates enough confusion and obfuscation of hydrogeologic principles to create the illusion that there could be adverse impacts if uranium mining occurred."
Interior Department officials declined Friday to get into the specifics of the emails, but rather said the withdrawal "is the right decision for this priceless American landscape -- one that was based on the best available science."
"The withdrawal maintains the pace of hardrock mining, particularly uranium, near the Grand Canyon but also gives us a chance to monitor the impacts associated with uranium mining in this area," added Adam Fetcher, Secretary Salazar's press secretary. "It protects valid existing mining claims, while preserving the ability of future decision-makers to make thoughtful decisions about managing this area of national environmental and cultural significance based on the best information available."
Officials for the National Parks and Conservation Association, who had applauded the withdrawal when the secretary announced it, could not immediately be reached for comment before the Memorial Day holiday weekend.
During the withdrawal period, the BLM projects that up to 11 uranium mines, including four that are currently approved, could still be developed based on valid pre-existing rights – meaning the jobs supported by mining in the area would increase or remain flat as compared to the current level, according to the BLM’s analysis. By comparison, during the 1980s, nine uranium mines were developed on these lands and five were mined out. Without the withdrawal, there could be 30 uranium mines in the area over the next 20 years, including the four that are currently approved, with as many as six operating at one time, the EIS estimated.
The withdrawn area includes 355,874 acres of U.S. Forest Service land on the Kaibab National Forest; 626,678 acres of Bureau of Land Management lands; and 23,993 acres of split estate – where surface lands are held by other owners while subsurface minerals are owned by the federal government. The affected lands, all in the vicinity of the Grand Canyon or Grand Canyon National Park, are located in Mohave and Coconino Counties of Northern Arizona.
When Secretary Salazar announced the withdrawal, Interior officials said the decision was the culmination of more than two years of evaluation during which the BLM analyzed the proposed withdrawal in an EIS prepared in cooperation with the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Park Service.
But in an email sent March 8, 2011, by Mr. Martin to Gary Rosenlieb, chief of the Park Service's Water Operations Branch, the hydrogeologist wrote that previous geologic studies "have been unable to detect any contamination downstream of current or past mining operations," aside from an abandoned, unreclaimed mine on the park's South Rim. "This is in no way a suitable comparison to the hydrogeologic setting or conditions expected at potential mine sites evaluated in the DEIS," added Mr. Martin.
The email trail (attached below) also mentions that Mr. Martin raised his concerns with the "USGS lead author of the water chemistry" chapter of the DEIS, but that that individual replied that "the report was prepared under contract to BLM and speaks for itself..."
William Jackson, the Park Service's supervisory hydrogeologist, told Bert Frost, the agency's associate director for Natural Resource Stewardship and Science, that "this is obviously a touchy case where the hard science doesn't strongly support a policy position."
U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Washington, whose House Natural Resources Committee obtained the emails, said the correspondence raises "serious concerns about whether the Obama Administration’s decision to block uranium production in Arizona was based on politics rather than sound science."
“Developing uranium in the United States will create high-paying jobs, boost the economy, lower our dependence on foreign countries, and support clean American energy," he added in a prepared statement. "The Administration’s unilateral action to block uranium development on this land threatens America’s energy security and ignores numerous studies showing that it can be done safely in an environmentally conscious manner.”
U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, who chairs the committee's subcommittee on national parks, followed up the discovery of the emails with a letter to Secretary Salazar seeking "emails, notes, briefing papers and memoranda, concerning the Draft Environmental Impact Statement, the Final Environmental Impact Statement, and the Record of Decision in support of the Northern Arizona Proposed Withdrawal."