One year after the Obama administration enacted new protections limiting uranium-mine development on 1 million acres around Grand Canyon National Park, pollution and legal threats from the uranium industry remain. Five uranium-industry lawsuits—one seeking upwards of $120 million from the United States—as well as plans to reopen two 1980s-era mines still threaten the public and traditional tribal land and water within and around Grand Canyon National Park.
“Grand Canyon and its watershed provide important habitat for a variety of wildlife—from condors to bighorn sheep—plus it is an economic engine for northern Arizona, providing jobs and important income to this rural area,” said Sandy Bahr, director of the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter. “This mineral withdrawal—stopping destructive mining activities—is critical to protecting Grand Canyon and the water that is the lifeblood for our communities.”
The administration finalized the million-acre “mineral withdrawal” around Grand Canyon on Jan. 9, 2012, following regional and national uproar over the potential impacts of a new uranium-mining boom in the world-famous landscape. The withdrawal prohibits new mining claims and mine development on old claims that lack proven ore reserves and valid rights to mine.
“After an extensive review process and substantial public participation, Secretary Salazar made a strong, affirmative decision to protect one of the world’s most enduring landscapes and the sustained health of indigenous communities that live within the watershed of the Grand Canyon,” said Dave Nimkin of the National Parks Conservation Association. “Current efforts to compromise that bold and appropriate decision put all of us at risk.”
Five lawsuits from the uranium industry and its supporters were filed in 2012 challenging the withdrawal; one was withdrawn, and four were consolidated into one suit, now before a federal district court in Arizona. To defend the withdrawal, the Havasupai Tribe and conservation groups have intervened in that suit.
“The Grand Canyon and lands, watersheds and communities around it should not become dotted with mines and crisscrossed by roads and heavy trucks carting radioactive material,” said Ted Zukoski, an Earthjustice attorney representing tribal and conservation groups opposing the industry lawsuits. “We’ll continue the fight to protect the area’s people, wildlife and life-giving waters.”
London-based VANE Minerals withdrew its suit challenging the mining restrictions late last month, opting instead to sue the United States in the court of claims. In that pending suit, VANE claims that the new restrictions on mining entitle it to $120 million-plus from U.S. taxpayers.
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The Kaibab National Forest in April granted mining rights to Energy Fuels for the Canyon Mine along Grand Canyon’s south rim and within the withdrawal area. In June the Forest announced that it would allow Energy Fuels to reopen the Canyon Mine without updating its 27-year-old “environmental impact statement.” The mine is adjacent to Red Butte, an area sacred to the Havasupai, who in the 1990s waged a years-long court battle to block the mine.
“The Obama administration’s agencies are allowing old mines to reopen without updating ancient environmental studies,” said Taylor McKinnon, public lands campaigns director with the Center for Biological Diversity. “These mines will bring the same pollution the mineral restrictions intended to block. Their approval in the 1980s was a terrible idea; allowing them to reopen now on the basis of out-of-date science is even worse.”
The Bureau of Land Management is allowing Energy Fuels to prepare a second mine, the Pinenut Mine located north of Grand Canyon, for opening. Like the Forest Service, the BLM has not updated 1980s-era environmental reviews for that mine or for the nearby Arizona 1 mine, which began operations in 2009, and which tribes and conservation groups have sued to halt. That litigation is now before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
“Decades of uranium mining in the region have left a toxic legacy that has permanently polluted surface and groundwater and continues to threaten people’s lives, the park, and plant and animal communities,” said Roger Clark of the Grand Canyon Trust. “Grand Canyon National Park recently spent $15 million to remove radioactive machinery and topsoil from the Orphan Mine, which pose health risks to endangered condors and visitors to popular Canyon overlooks. Mining is a boom-and-bust industry that harms tourism and robs local economies of long-term benefits from Grand Canyon’s enduring and unpolluted landscapes.”
Uranium pollution already plagues the Grand Canyon and surrounding area. The Navajo Nation has several hundred abandoned uranium mines that have yet to be cleaned up. Because dozens of new mines threatened to industrialize valued lands, destroy wildlife habitat and permanently pollute or deplete aquifers and springs, scientists, tribal and local governments and businesses have all voiced support for the protection that the mineral withdrawal affords Grand Canyon and its surrounding land.