The Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club and Grand Canyon Trust filed suit last week challenging the approval of up to 39 new uranium exploration sites near Grand Canyon National Park.
In December the Kaibab National Forest granted British firm VANE Minerals approval to conduct exploratory uranium drilling on National Forest lands along the park's southern boundary.
It is the first of five such projects slated for the area.
"Grand Canyon simply isn't the place for uranium development," said Taylor McKinnon of the Center for Biological Diversity. "Our national treasures deserve better than the calamity of an adjacent industrial zone."
The suit claims that the Forest Service violated the National Environmental Policy Act, Administrative Procedures Act and Appeals Reform Act when it approved the uranium exploration using a "categorical exclusion," the least rigorous analysis available to the agency.
The suit also maintains that analysis failed to consider the controversy attending uranium development, the significance of its proximity to the Grand Canyon and the overall cumulative impacts of four other future uranium exploration projects and the potential opening of Denison Corporation's Canyon Mine - all located in the same area.
The lawsuit follows a letter sent by the same groups outlining legal problems with the approval and requesting that the Forest Service withdraw its decision.
The Forest Service claims it has little power to deny uranium exploration under the 1872 Mining Law. But the mining law doesn't go against the agency's separate obligation under the National Environmental Policy Act to carry out in-depth public and environmental reviews of such proposals.
"The Grand Canyon is facing a massive uranium build-up at its southern boundary," said Sandy Bahr of Sierra Club's Grand Canyon Chapter. "The mining law doesn't negate the Forest Service's duty to conduct detailed environmental and public reviews for new uranium development - and the Grand Canyon deserves at least that much."
Fueled by a 15-fold increase in uranium prices during the last eight years, planned uranium development has increased enormously on federal lands immediately south of the Grand Canyon.
There are 1,600 uranium claims, five uranium exploration projects and the possible opening of one mine.
The boom provoked a unanimous resolution from the Coconino County Board of Supervisors earlier in the year opposing uranium development around the Grand Canyon - the VANE Minerals exploration specifically - and supporting congressional efforts to protect the area from future uranium development.
"Some places should be off-limits to noise, heavy equipment traffic, drilling, and potential contamination from uranium exploration and drilling; the rim of the Grand Canyon is one of those places," said Dave Gowdey from Grand Canyon Trust. "Congress should act now to protect the park and its surrounding public lands."