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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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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

Colorado orders cleanup of ‘zombie’ uranium mines

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A state-ordered cleanup of several uranium mining sites in southwestern Colorado will help protect water and air quality.

Deadline set to remove mine waste, revegetate sites

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY —A mining company with a long history on noncompliance with reclamation requirements has been ordered to clean up four semi-abandoned uranium mines in southwest Colorado.

An attempt by Gold Eagle Mining Inc, to delay closure of the mines for another five years was successfully challenged by a watchdog group. The mines, have been idle for three decades, despite a state law that requires uranium mines to be reclaimed and closed a maximum of 10 years after mining ceases.

Three of the mines are located in Slick Rock, directly adjacent to the Dolores River. A fourth mine is located on the slopes above the picturesque Paradox Valley. Multiple documents relating to the mines, including copies of inspection reports and warning letters from the state, are posted here.

None of the mines has an environmental protection plan in place, as required by a 2008 state law. Colorado State Rep. Don Coram, who represents the 58th District in the Colorado House, is president of Gold Eagle Mining Inc., which leases the mines from the Department of Energy and operates them under a permit from the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining & Safety. 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

Colorado: Hearing on controversial uranium mill starts; conservation groups get formal party status

Many southwest Colorado residents are saying no thanks to uranium mining and milling in their region.

Hearing starts Oct. 15 for what would be the country’s first new uranium mill in 30 years

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — After a start-stop permitting procedure for a proposed uranium mill in southwestern Colorado was marred by inadequate public hearings, state officials will once again take input in formal proceedings starting Oct. 15.

This time, a judge has given three conservation groups formal standing for the hearings, which means that environmental advocates will be able to introduce evidence, testify and cross-examine witnesses.

The Piñon Ridge mill is proposed for the Paradox Valley, in southwestern Colorado near the Dolores River. The three groups — Rocky Mountain Wild, Colorado Environmental Coalition and the Center for Biological Diversity — will join the towns of Telluride, Ophir, and San Miguel County in voicing concerns about the proposed mill’s threats to air, water, wildlife and tourism. Continue reading

Colorado: South Park to seek federal aquifer protection

Sole source designation could help guard against mining impacts

A typical in-situ uranium mining test-drilling site during the exploration phase. Photo courtesy Save Our South Park Water.

By Bob Berwyn

FRISCO — South Park residents concerned about impacts of uranium mining and other forms of energy development are seeking federal protection for their water supplies under a sole source aquifer designation from the EPA.

The designation would require more in-depth review of any proposed activities that could affect water supplies. Of special concern is uranium mining near Hartsel, as well as potential development of oil and gas resources. The designation could also result in buffers and other protective measures.

Gaining the EPA designation is a multi-step process beginning Sept. 11 with a meeting of the local environmental advisory board. Citizens will offer a petition requesting the South Park county commissioners to sponsor a formal request for the designation to regional, state and federal authorities. Get an overview of the  regional sole source aquifer program at this EPA website. Continue reading

Colorado: Court upholds rules that protect water from uranium mining and protect right to public involvement

Legal battles over uranium mining in Colorado continue.

Canadian company tries to overturn state rules

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — Efforts by a Canadian mining company to bully Colorado came to naught last week, as Denver District Court Judge Christina Habas upheld state regulations that protect water from in situ leach uranium mining impacts.

In its lawsuit against the state, Powertech Uranium Corp. claimed that the Colorado exceeded its legal authority and that adoption of the rules was arbitrary and capricious.

By dismissing the lawsuit, the court also ensured that local communities will have a chance to be involved in the permitting of uranium mines.

“The Colorado uranium mining industry is wrong to keep fighting water quality protections and better public involvement,” said Western Mining Action Project attorney Jeff Parsons, who represented local communities that intervened on the side of the State in defending the rules against the Powertech lawsuit. Continue reading

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