Groups push for new federal mining rules

A coalition of environmental groups and Native American tribes is asking officials to overhaul federal mining standards ahead of new uranium mining near the Grand Canyon. 

The groups, a collection that includes local tribes and conservation organizations like the Grand Canyon Trust, petitioned four agency heads on Tuesday asking for changes to rules governing mining on federal lands.

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The request comes months after a federal judge cleared an energy company to begin mining for uranium near the Grand Canyon in Arizona years after the company abandoned its original mining plans there. The groups warned that such “zombie mines” — those re-opened after periods of inactivity — could have a negative impact on public health or the environment. 

New standards are especially necessary, the groups argued, in light of this month's toxic waste spill triggered by a clean-up crew at an abandoned mine in Colorado. 

“The Animas River disaster must mark the end of the days where irresponsible mining threatens our region’s livable future,” Anne Mariah Tapp, the energy program director for the Grand Canyon Trust, said in a statement. 

“Our coalition’s petition provides the federal agencies with a reasonable path forward that will benefit western communities, taxpayers, water resources, and our most treasured landscapes.”

Among the groups’ suggestions: limiting mining approvals to 20-year intervals, instituting a new environmental review process for mines that have been inoperative for at least 10 years, requiring federal inspections of those mines and setting deadlines for reclaiming them and monitoring water quality there. 

New regulations, the groups said, would make operators, rather than the government, responsible for ensuring safety at the mines. 

“We know that [Bureau of Land Management] and the Forest Service have too few resources for too many tasks,” the groups said in a letter to the agency heads. “That is why, under our proposal, the burdens to apply for permit renewals, and to provide better and more timely information regarding temporary closures and re-openings, would fall primarily on operators.”

The letter comes as Energy Fuels Inc. gears up to begin mining for uranium at Arizona’s Canyon mine. Conservation groups and a Native American tribe had challenged the U.S. Forest Service’s 2012 decision to allow mining there, but a federal judge rejected their argument and approved the company’s plans in April.

The petition went to the secretaries of Interior and Agriculture, the director of the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service chief.