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Grand Canyon uranium mining
Arizona Daily Star , February 27, 2012

Groups sue to stop uranium mining ban

Trade groups representing the mining and energy industries filed suit Monday in Arizona seeking to overturn a 20-year ban on uranium mining on about 1 million acres of public lands near the Grand Canyon.

In documents filed with the U.S. District Court, the National Mining Association and the Nuclear Energy Institute challenged the constitutionality of the mining ban as well as the validity of the environmental studies used to justify it. They asked a judge to reopen the land.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar imposed the ban In January, citing evidence that extracting uranium so near to the canyon could endanger the groundwater or seep into the Colorado River. He said the 20-year time-out would allow a more thorough scientific review of the possible threats.

The mining association and the energy institute cited past Supreme Court decisions in arguments that Salazar's action was illegal and they said the environmental studies did not support the ban.

Hal Quinn, present and CEO of the mining group, said the Interior Department "offered no evidence ... that a million-acre land grab is necessary to avoid environmental harm," and argued that the agency did not adequately analyze the economic effects of its action or consider other alternatives to the ban.

Richard Meyers, an energy institute vice president, said the ban is "designed to protect against situations and circumstances that no longer exist. It is a mistake to judge today’s uranium mining activities by practices and standards from 50 to 60 years ago.”

The suit (pdf) asks the court to overturn the ban and declare unconstitutional the section of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act cited by Salazar. In a third request that would affect future decisions, the groups also want the court to rule that the Interior secretary does not have the authority to block mining on blocks of more than 5,000 acres, or about 8 square miles, of public lands.

A coalition of environmental groups immediately announced plans to intervene in the lawsuit on behalf of the federal government. The Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Grand Canyon Trust will be represented by Earthjustice and the Western Mining Action Project.

The mining association "is grasping at straws,” said Taylor McKinnon, public lands campaigns director for the center. “Interior has been enacting withdrawals under (the land act) for decades absent constitutional problems. The decision to protect it from more uranium mining pollution was the right one, and one that we’ll defend.”

Mining companies began filing new claims in the region several years ago when prices for the ore began to rise. Conservation groups have tried to stop the spread of the mines, warning that the health and safety of people who live near the canyon and who rely on the Colorado river are at risk.

Attempts to enact a ban in Congress have failed, which led to Salazar's administrative action. Republicans have tried to overturn the ban with legislation of their own, but face opposition in the Democratic-controlled Senate and the White House.

The ban only blocks new claims in the area and would not affect companies with existing claims. Federal officials estimate as many as 11 mines could operate on the 1 million acres during the 20-year life of the moratorium.

But GOP leaders in Arizona say the 20-year time-out would cost northern Arizona and southern Utah badly needed jobs at a time when unemployment in the region is still high. They also argue that the uranium will help the United States further its pursuit of energy independence.

The conservation groups said Monday that the public has overwhelmingly sided with the protection of the canyon, citing nearly 400,000 comments from 90 countries urging Salazar to block new uranium mines.

"The lawsuit further demonstrates that the mining industry has little regard for the rule of law or respect for local, tribal, economic, and public interest in protecting the Grand Canyon," said Roger Clark, program director for Grand Canyon Trust.

This article originally appeared here.

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton