Sparks fly over Grand Canyon rider at House approps markup

(07/13/2011)

Manuel Quinones and Elana Schor, E&E reporters

A measure to block the Obama administration from moving forward with plans to limit uranium mining around the Grand Canyon was among the most hotly contested in yesterday’s House Appropriations Committee markup of the 2012 spending proposal for U.S. EPA and the Interior Department.

The rider, authored by Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), is the GOP’s first legislative attack against last month’s announcement by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar extending the current moratorium on new hardrock claims for a million acres around the Grand Canyon. The administration also announced its intention to enact a 20-year moratorium, pending a final review (E&ENews PM, June 20).

Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) pushed for an amendment to strike the Flake language and allow the process to move forward (see related story). “We’re only talking about deleting language that interferes with a deliberative process,” he said. “Frankly I would prefer that we just leave that land alone. But I’m willing to defer to the judgement of the experts.”

Flake’s rider has elevated the debate over the future of mining around the Grand Canyon. Despite deliberations within the administration, the issue had been on the back burner. Salazar’s announcement and yesterday’s markup have sparked numerous press releases, statements by interest groups and newspaper editorials.

Lawmakers at the markup voiced familiar arguments in their debate. Critics of expanded mining worry about the environment and tourism and say uranium can be mined elsewhere. Mining boosters dispute evidence of water contamination and tout the economic benefits of more domestic uranium extraction.

“The gulf between rhetoric and reality on this amendment is as wide as the Grand Canyon,” Flake said.

Supporters of the administration’s proposal spoke about the foreign ownership of many uranium mining companies operating in the United States, particularly Toronto-based Denison Mines Corp., which is partly owned by Korea Electric Power Corp. (Greenwire, May 4). Denison runs the only working uranium mine near the Grand Canyon and wants to expand operations in the area.

For Moran, lawmakers could either side with the Grand Canyon or “the foreign-owned uranium mining companies who will pay nothing — zero — to mine uranium from our national park.” Current law does not impose a royalty on hardrock mining (E&E Daily, June 28).

“They can’t make a good argument on environmental stuff, because there are no environmental problems” from leaving the land open to new claims, Flake said yesterday. Asked about the invocation of foreign interests benefiting from the provision, he dismissed it as “a reach.”

Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), a strong supporter of conservation, has said he will back an amendment on the House floor to strip the Flake language and get lawmakers on the record on the issue (E&E Daily, July 7).

Earmark by earmark foe?

Flake’s rider also prompted a bid for political rebranding by Democrats, who dubbed the provision an “earmark” — a four-letter word to the Arizonan, who has spent much of his career decrying special-interest spending.

“The most anti-earmark guy [on the committee] offered the most obvious earmark,” Moran said yesterday of Flake. “That’s an earmark for his state and for an industry that supports him … to give away uranium mined out of the Grand Canyon for no compensation for taxpayers.”

Flake strongly disputed the charge, blasting it as a last resort for Democrats who “don’t have a very good argument” for defeating his provision.

Flake predicted that Democrats would gain little traction in trying to depict appropriations riders — which many in their party have employed in the past — as earmarks. “They’ve been at this for a while,” he said, describing the strategy as “get an unpopular word and apply it to everything.”

Indeed, when asked whether conservatives would see hypocrisy in policy riders pushed by Republican earmark critics, Moran demurred.

“I find it more and more difficult to understand where the Republican conservative base is coming from,” he said. “So I can’t answer that.”

Other mining provisions

The Appropriations Committee struck down another Moran amendment that would have jettisoned a rider suspending work on a forthcoming stream protection rule by the Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement.

“I do think that science has shown that there is need for environmental regulation of mountaintop mining removal,” Moran said.

Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) said OSM’s rule was just another example of the Obama administration’s larger effort to marginalize coal mining.

“These changes are not occurring in a vacuum,” Rogers said. “Other agencies, notably EPA, have implemented similar regulations aimed at coal mining.”

The spending bill includes other measures related to coal mining. Separate riders would stop implementation of an agreement between EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers, which set aside some coal-mining permits for “enhanced review,” and would pull funding for implementation of draft guidance that EPA says is needed to prevent water pollution from Appalachian mountaintop removal mining projects.

Also, Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.) attached an amendment to block EPA efforts to impose financial assurance requirements on hardrock mining operations and other industries under the Superfund law. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), in a March letter to EPA, suggested the agency was involved in a “power grab” on the issue (E&E Daily, March 9).

Reporters Paul Quinlan and Jean Chemnick contributed.

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