Leaked Interior Department emails point to political motives in mining ban
In what could prove to be a major embarrassment for the Department of Interior (DOI), a clutch of recently leaked emails suggest that the department may have had little to no scientific evidence supporting its January decision to withdraw over 1 million acres in northern Arizona from new uranium mining claims due to concerns about ground water contamination.
In January, Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar hailed the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) decision to impose a 20-year moratorium on new mining claims on land surrounding Grand Canyon National Park as a sensible move that would protect environmental and cultural resources.
“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,” Salazar announced. “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 in an internal email exchange, recently made public on U.S. Congressman Rob Bishop’s, R-UT, website, National Parks Service (NPS) hydrologist Larry Martin explained to NPS Water Operations Branch Chief William Jackson that in his view, BLM’s draft environmental impact statement (DE- IS) justifying the mining ban was scientifically without merit.
“My professional and personal opinion,” wrote Martin, “is that the potential impacts stated in the DEIS are grossly overestimated, and even then they are very minor and negligible.”
Martin went on to cite numerous examples “buried” in the environmental report that support his position, but complained that the report’s authors failed to draw the conclusion supported by the evidence, and actually obscured the scientific facts.
“The DEIS goes to great lengths in an attempt to establish impacts to water resources from uranium mining,” wrote Martin. “It fails to do so, but instead creates enough confusion and obfuscation of hydrologic principles to create the illusion that there could be adverse impacts if uranium mining occurred.”
In what is perhaps the most damaging part of the exchange, Jackson informs a superior that Martin “basically has it right” in his assessment that uranium mining in the area would pose essentially no threat to water quality.
But Jackson goes on to observe that “[t]his is a touchy case where the hard science doesn’t strongly support a policy position,” suggesting that the best way to “finesse” the situation is to ban further mining on a “precautionary” basis, despite the fact that the scientific evidence strongly indicates that the danger to ground water, if any, is negligible.
The leaked documents drew sharp words from congressional leaders tasked with overseeing the nation’s natural resources, many of whom have repeatedly charged the Obama administration with putting politics before science.
“I am concerned and troubled by the Department of Interior’s decision to proceed with the ban despite the fact their own experts cautioned that scientific evidence was lacking,” said Bishop, chairman of the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands. “It is now increasingly apparent that the decision was motivated by politics rather than science as the administration would have us believe. These emails illustrate that Secretary Salazar blatantly ignored the scientific analysis in order to advance the administration’s narrowminded political agenda.”
Any confirmed attempt by NPS personnel to ignore Martin’s scientific opinion would be all the more embarrassing, given the heavy stress the Obama administration has laid on policy being guided by sound science. For example, in 2010, Salazar issued explicit instructions to all bureaus under DOI (including NPS and BLM) for “[e]nsuring scientific integrity within the Department.” The Secretarial Order explicitly stated that “DOI employees, political and career, must never suppress or alter, without new scientific or technological evidence, scientific or technological findings or conclusions.” It remains to be seen whether Jackson’s proposal to “finesse” the disconnect between Martin’s scientific findings and an apparently predetermined policy decision falls under this description.
What is clear is that administration watchdogs will be carefully scrutinizing whether Interior has breached its own rules, as well as federal statute. On May 23, Bishop and Congressman Doc Hastings, R- WA, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, issued a letter to Salazar requesting all documents pertaining to the creation of the BLM’s final Environmental Impact Statement, including briefing papers, memoranda, notes and emails, be provided to the committee “in order to better understand the circumstances surrounding the withdrawal decision.”
The revelatory emails may also play a key role in the numerous lawsuits that have been filed against Interior by various mining companies and associations following the January decision to impose the 20-year moratorium. The National Mining Association, Northwest Mining Association, Quaterra Resources, Inc., and Mohave County, AZ, have all individually initiated legal action against the DOI on the grounds that by failing to give sufficient scientific justification for its action, Interior violated the National Environmental Policy Act.
Located outside of Grand Canyon National Park, the affected land reportedly contains 40 percent of the U.S. domestic uranium reserves and is of the highest grade known to exist in the U.S. Although the ban would not void existing claims, critics maintain that the ban will unnecessarily suppress economic development in Arizona’s Mohave and Coconino counties, where the affected area is located, as well in Utah’s San Juan County, site of a uranium processing mill. According to a study released by the American Clean Energy Resources Trust, a ban on mining in this region could impact as many as 1,000 jobs and cost more than $29 million in lost economic revenue. — Andy Rieber, WLJ Correspondent