Mining Claims Up; Group Fears for Colorado River

Mining claims near the Colorado River have doubled in the last five years, raising fears that the West's most important waterway -- a drinking water source to 25 million people and irrigation supply for Western agriculture -- could become contaminated by toxic heavy metals, including radioactive uranium waste.

The Colorado, which provides drinking water to Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix, Las Vegas, and other cities, and irrigation water for agriculture in California's Imperial Valley, is under assault by multinational corporations rushing to cash in on record prices for uranium, gold, and other metals. Yet under the antiquated 1872 Mining Law, federal officials are virtually powerless to prevent mining even if it would affect the West's most precious commodity.

An investigation by Environmental Working Group (EWG) of Bureau of Land Management records found that hardrock mining claims within 10 miles of the 1,450-mile-long Colorado have increased from 2,568 in January 2003 to 5,545 in January 2008. In that period, claims within 5 miles of the river more than doubled, from 395 to 1,195.

EWG's report, which includes Google Earth maps that show how mining claims are encroaching on the Grand Canyon and the rest of the river's course, is available at 

Recently, the governor of Arizona and the chief of Southern California's largest water supplier have expressed their concerns to the Bush Administration that uranium mines could mean contamination of the river with toxic waste. Under current law, the Secretary of the Interior can intervene to stop a potentially harmful mine, but there is little that other federal and state officials or citizens can do once a claim is staked.

"The Colorado River is the lifeblood of the West," said EWG Analyst Dusty Horwitt. "It should be protected from pollution by toxic mining waste. We need a federal mining law that places our rivers, national parks, and communities off-limits to mining companies."

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) issued a statement in support of EWG's findings. I"I believe strict environmental standards should be in place to protect the Colorado River and other critical public resources from contamination due to mining activities," said Feinstein. "This report underscores the need to reform the 1872 mining law."

The U.S. House of Representatives passed a comprehensive mining reform bill last fall that would empower federal officials to exercise discretion about where mining occurs, but the Senate, under the leadership of Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, the nation's leading hardrock mining state, has yet to act on its own version.

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