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Environment: Federal court uphold 20-year ban on uranium mining in the Grand Canyon area

A legal road on the Kaibab National Forest leads to this lookout spot on the rim of the Grand Canyon near the Saddle Mountain wilderness area. PHOTO COURTESY LEIGH WADDEN.

New uranium mining on lands near the Grand Canyon is at issue in a legal battle.

Judge says environmental studies followed the law and that the government has the right to err on the side of caution

Staff Report

FRISCO — A 20-year ban on uranium mining on lands surrounding the Grand Canyon withstood a legal challenge from industry interests and local governments this week, as U.S. District Court Judge David Campbell ruled in favor of the federal government.

“The Court can find no legal principle that prevents DOI from acting in the face of uncertainty. Nor can the Court conclude that the Secretary abused his discretion or acted arbitrarily, capriciously, or in violation of law when he chose to err on the side of caution in  protecting a national treasure – Grand Canyon National Park,” Campbell wrote in his Sept. 30 ruling that dismissed the lawsuit.

Salazar announced his intent to withdraw the lands in 2009 and the decision was finalized in 2012 after extensive studies to assess the potential impacts to the environment. Overall, the reviews showed that there was low risk for serious contamination of water sources, but that the consequences could be serious.

A U.S. Geological Survey study found water from 15 springs and five wells in the region where dissolved uranium concentrations exceeded EPA maximu concentrations for drinking water. The agency was uncertain whether these concentrations resulted from mining, natural processes, or both.

The USGS also found that floods, flas  floods, and debris flows caused by winter storms and intense summer thunderstorms transported substantial volumes of trace elements and radionuclides, and that fractures, faults, sinkholes, and breccia pipes occur throughout the area and are potential pathways for downward migration of contaminants.

Conservation groups and Arizona’s Havasupai Tribe praised the decision.

“The Havasupai support the withdrawal of the lands from mining for the protection of our homes and our water. The ruling today by Judge Campbell recognizes the unique and important resources on the lands south of Grand Canyon that are our aboriginal homelands and within the watershed that feeds our springs and flows into our canyon home,” said Havasupai Chairman Rex Tilousi.

The tribe and conservation helped to defend Interior’s decision to protect Grand Canyon’s springs and creeks, wildlife and vistas from new toxic uranium-mining pollution. The groups and tribe were represented by public-interest law firms Earthjustice and Western Mining Action Project.

“The lands surrounding Grand Canyon are full of natural beauty,” said Ted Zukoski, an Earthjustice staff attorney who helped represent the groups in the lawsuit. “The life-giving waters and deer, elk, condors, and other wildlife found there deserve protection from the toxic pollution and industrialization threatened by large-scale uranium mining. That is why it was critical to defend these lands from this self-serving attack by the uranium industry.”

The mining industry lawsuit asserted that the Interior Department’s exhaustive, 700-page evaluation of environmental impacts was inadequate.

“The court’s ruling affirms conclusions by five federal agencies, including scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey,” said Grand Canyon Trust’s Roger Clark. “Uranium mining poses unacceptable risks to Grand Canyon’s water, wildlife, and people. It should be permanently banned from our region.”

One of the great symbols of the American West, Grand Canyon was first protected as a national monument by Theodore Roosevelt in 1908, and is surrounded by millions of additional acres of public lands that include wilderness areas, two national monuments, lands designated to protect endangered species and cultural resources, and old-growth ponderosa pine forests.

The canyon area is also home to the Havasupai, Kaibab Band of Paiutes, Hualapai and Navajo tribes and has been designated a World Heritage site. The greater Grand Canyon region attracts about five million tourists and recreationists per year.

Interior’s study of the mining time-out showed that, without the withdrawal, 26 new uranium mines and 700 uranium exploration projects would be developed, resulting in more than 1,300 acres of surface disturbance and the consumption of 316 million gallons of water.

Under the ban, existing mine operations are projected to have about one-tenth of the surface impacts and one-third the water usage over a 20-year period. If new uranium mining were allowed, uranium levels in some springs could rise to twice the level of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) drinking water standards and aquifers could be severely depleted, endangering public health and wildlife, and compromising the values of the tribes who consider the springs sacred.

The uranium mining companies have 60 days to appeal Judge Campbell’s decision to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and are likely to do so, given their past statements.

“If the mining companies do appeal, we’ll be there to defend the Secretary’s – and Judge Campbell’s – prudent decisions,” said Zukoski.

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Colorado River: New study offers painful details of Glen Canyon Dam impacts to downstream ecosystems

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Glen Canyon Dam has fundamentally altered downstream ecosystems in the Colorado River. Photo courtesy U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

‘A shadow of pre-dam conditions … ‘

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — With all the focus on water quantity in the Colorado River Basin, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that the installation of massive dams has fundamentally altered the river’s ecosystem.

But an in-depth three-year study done as part of the Glen Canyon Dam Adaptive Management Program offers a stark reminder of the changes wrought by drastically altering the river’s hydrological regime. Continue reading

British mining company sues U.S. government over Grand Canyon uranium mining moratorium

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The Grand Canyon. Courtesy NPS.

Vane Minerals seeks $132 million in damages

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — The long-running battle over uranium mining near the Grand Canyon took another twist this week as a British company, VANE Minerals, sued the United States in Washington’s U.S. Court of Claims over the decision to protect 1 million acres of public lands around Grand Canyon National Park from new uranium mining.

VANE’s suit claims that uranium mining in Grand Canyon’s watershed “would have no adverse impacts.” The company is seeking up to $132 million from U.S. taxpayers. This is VANE’s second attempt to bring such a suit against the U.S. Continue reading

Grand Canyon uranium mining ban withstands another test

Federal judge once again rejects mining industry challenge to withdrawal

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Speculative uranium plays have raised the prospect of mining in the vicinity of the Grand Canyon. Photo courtesy National Park Service.

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — A moratorium on uranium mining in the greater Grand Canyon region withstood another test this week, as U.S. District Judge David Campbell denied a uranium industry motion to reconsider his previous ruling to let the temporary ban stand.

Mining interests could still go to a federal appeals court, but for now, the withdrawal enacted last year by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar will stand.

“It’s another good day for the Grand Canyon, and for rivers, wildlife, and communities across the West,” said Ted Zukoski of Earthjustice, one the attorneys representing conservation groups and the Havasupai Tribe in the case.  “The court has now twice rejected the uranium industry’s attempt to cripple the Interior Department’s ability to temporarily protect lands from destructive mining.” Continue reading

Biodiversity: More condors die of lead poisoning

Conservation advocates want to phase out lead ammunition

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Majestic California condors are dying of lead poisoning on a regular basis.

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — With another three endangered California condors dead from lead poisoning in Arizona, conservation advocates are ramping up their call to phase out the use of lead ammunition.

Three condors may not sound like many, but that’s nearly 5 percent of the entire Arizona-Utah population, which numbers only about 80 birds. Seven of the birds have died since December, and three of the deaths are definitively linked with lead poisoning, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.

Since condors eat carrion, they ingest spent lead ammunition fragments as part of their diet. Lead poisoning is also suspected in the other four deaths. At least 38 condors have been killed by lead poisoning in Arizona and Utah. Lead poisoning recently killed the female of Utah’s only breeding pair of condors. Each year, up to half of the wild Grand Canyon condors must be given life-saving, emergency blood treatment for lead poisoning. Continue reading

Morning photo: West!

It’s not ALWAYS wild …

Looking out at the Golden Gate Bridge makes you realize you're about as far west as you can be in the U.S.

Looking out at the Golden Gate Bridge makes you realize you’re about as far west as you can be in the U.S.

FRISCO — When I saw this week’s #FriFotos theme I was pretty excited. After the West is where I first really spread my photography wings and learned to fly. In the early days, it was all I could do to hold the camera steady and straight while taking in those jaw-dropping vistas. Today, places like the Golden Gate Bridge still make my jaw drop, but thanks to digital photography and a slightly more sophisticated approach and technique, I do manage to capture a decent shot every now and then. Join in the Twitter chat fun by uploading your favorite west-themed pics and tagging with #FriFotos and posting them to Twitter. Continue reading

Court upholds ban on uranium mining near Grand Canyon

Conservation groups hail partial victory; more legal arguments on tap

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Th North Rim of the Grand Canyon. Photo courtesy National Park Service.

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — A federal judge this week partly rebuffed the mining industry’s attempt to pursue speculative uranium claims in the Grand Canyon region, saying that Interior Secretary Ken Salazar acted within his authority when he ordered a temporary mining ban across more than 1 million acres.

The ban was adopted January 2012 to protect the Grand Canyon’s watersheds. The withdrawal prohibits new mining claims and development on old claims that lack “valid existing rights” to mine.

The National Mining Association, Nuclear Energy Institute, Northwest Mining Association and others last year filed four lawsuits challenging the withdrawal and the underlying federal authority to enact any withdrawals larger than 5,000 acres. The Havasupai tribe and conservation groups intervened to uphold both. Continue reading

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