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Zinke testifies at Senate

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke testifies at a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing on the FY19 budget, Thursday, May 10, 2018, on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Around this time last year, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke publicly announced his support for a 20-year mining ban in Montana’s Paradise Valley, just outside of Yellowstone National Park. Citing the area’s abundant wildlife, outdoor recreation and gorgeous scenery, Zinke’s spokeswoman was blunt: “Some places are too precious to mine.

Now, Zinke is once again faced with a stark choice. Will he stand up to protect the Grand Canyon and the water flowing through it? Or, will he cave to industry pressure and allow uranium mining just outside the park’s boundary?

Uranium mining — which can spread radioactive dust through the air and leak radioactivity and toxic chemicals into the environment — is among the riskiest industrial activities in the world. Uranium has left a toxic trail across the American West, sickening generations of people and contaminating rivers, streams and wildlands with toxic waste.

Because of past mining activities, 15 springs and five wells near the Grand Canyon National Park already contain uranium concentrations above safe drinking limits. In recognition of this threat, then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar issued a 2012 order halting uranium exploration next to the park for 20 years.

Today, the Grand Canyon is at risk once again.

The current administration is now considering lifting this moratorium, opening up a million acres adjacent to the Grand Canyon for uranium mining. This is a short-sighted, wrong-headed move that jeopardizes local residents, visitors, wildlife and the environment in one of America’s most iconic natural places.

Interior Secretary Zinke has the power to stop it. We know that the president listens to him. Thanks to Zinke’s recommendation, the Upper Missouri River Breaks was spared during the president’s national monument review. And, at Zinke’s insistence, the Sperry Chalet rebuild leapfrogged over a backlog of national park infrastructure projects to receive funding this year.

Zinke has already used his influence to protect Montana’s favorite places. Will he begin to extend the favor to other states as well?

The Grand Canyon is a treasured ecosystem and a natural wonder, and it deserves our protection. For the sake of the canyon’s iconic landscape, as well as the 40 million Americans who drink from the Colorado River flowing through it, Zinke should keep the Interior’s mining moratorium in place. He should also encourage legislators from both sides of the aisle to work together to pass the Grand Canyon Heritage Act, which would make the moratorium permanent.

After all, the Grand Canyon is too precious to mine, too.

Skye Borden is the state director of Environment Montana Research & Policy Center, and writes from Missoula. 

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