Nuclear, mining industries go to federal court to try and reverse Interior Department’s 20-year moratorium
By Bob Berwyn
SUMMIT COUNTY — The mining and nuclear industries are challenging Interior Secretary Ken Salazar 20-year moratorium on uranium mining on more than 1 million acres in the vicinity of the Grand Canyon with a lawsuit filed this week in the U.S. District Court in Arizona.
The lawsuit claims Salazar lacks the statutory authority make a withdrawal larger than 5,000 acres; that the decision was arbitrary under the Administrative Procedures Act, and that the environmental studies failed to comply with federal environmental laws.
The lawsuit comes after Republican lawmakers from Arizona failed to remove the ban legislatively.
According to the lawsuit, the decision “imposes immediate and substantial delays and costs on existing mining claimants, results in the potential loss of mining claims, deprives claimants of the value of their investments, reduces U.S. production of uranium and reduces employment and revenue in northern Arizona.”
Conservation groups immediately responded by announcing their intention to intervene on the side of the government to defend the withdrawal of lands.
“The proposed land withdrawal is not justified by information in the Interior Department’s environmental assessment,” said Richard Myers, a policy official with the Nuclear Energy Institute, the lobbying group for the nuclear energy industry. “The proposed land withdrawal 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. Yet that, apparently, is what the Interior Department has done in its final environmental impact statement,” Myers said.
“Uranium mining threatens the air, life-giving water and wildlife of the Grand Canyon area,” said Ted Zukoski, Earthjustice staff attorney who will be representing the groups in the lawsuit. “We’ll be there in court to help defend the reasonable protections that limit that damage.”
Most of the existing and potential uranium mining claims in the area are highly speculative, with little indication that commercial mining is at hand, and there are other sources of uranium ore worldwide, accessible without potential threats to water quality in the greater Grand Canyon ecosystem.
Nevertheless, the mining and nuclear energy industry want to make sure the resources are available, claiming that the Arizona strip represents some of the highest-grade ores in the United States, potentially sufficient to produce as much as 375 million pounds of uranium, approximately 40 percent of U.S. reserves and more than seven times current U.S. annual demand.
According to a prepared statement from the Nuclear Energy Institute, current demand outstrips supplies by about 40 million pounds per year. The balance comes from secondary sources of supply, including inventories held by the U.S. and Russian governments. U.S. uranium production in 2010 was approximately 4 million pounds.
“Grand Canyon National Park is an international icon, a biodiversity hotspot and an economic engine for the Southwest. The decision to protect it from more uranium mining pollution was the right one, and one that we’ll defend,” said Taylor McKinnon, public lands campaigns director with the Center for Biological Diversity.
Uranium pollution already plagues the Grand Canyon and surrounding area. Proposals for new mining have prompted protests, litigation and proposed legislation. Scientists and tribal and local governments and businesses have all voiced support for the new protections because dozens of new mines threaten to industrialize iconic and regionally sacred wildlands, destroy wildlife habitat and permanently pollute or deplete aquifers.
“The Sierra Club has a 100-plus year history of acting to protect the Grand Canyon and its watershed,” said Sandy Bahr, chapter director of Sierra Club – Grand Canyon Chapter. “We will continue to work to ensure that these public lands are protected and that uranium mines are not allowed to contaminate the groundwater and threaten the watershed.”
Over the past few years, nearly 400,000 people from 90 countries wrote to the Department of the Interior urging it to ban new uranium mining around the canyon after a uranium boom threatened to bring a new wave of destructive mining threatening recreation, tourism, wildlife habitat and waters in Grand Canyon National Park.
“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 Grand Canyon Trust program director Roger Clark.