Lawsuit challenges uranium mine at Grand Canyon

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz- On. Nov. 16 the Center for Biological Diversity, Grand Canyon Trust, and Sierra Club filed suit in an Arizona federal court challenging the Bureau of Land Management's approval of the restart of a defunct uranium mine just north of Grand Canyon National Park.

The conservation groups said they are suing over the Bureau's failure to update 1980s-era environmental reviews and mining plans prior to allowing Denison Mines Corporation to begin mining at the "Arizona 1" mine. The mine was partially constructed in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but was closed due to market conditions in 1992 without producing any uranium ore. The Bureau of Land Management did not respond to a September legal notice from conservation groups urging the agency to correct course in order to avoid the recent litigation. The mine is within the same area that Interior Secretary Ken Salazar placed off-limits to new mining claims and operations in an order issued in July of this year.

The recent suit cites violations of National Environmental Policy Act provisions that require the land-management agency to consider new information regarding the hydrology, spring ecology, and biodiversity of the area in order to accurately evaluate the impacts of the mine. The suit also cites violations of the Endangered Species Act in the federal government's failure to ensure that new mining will not jeopardize threatened and endangered species or their critical habitat - including Colorado pikeminnow, humpback chub, bonytail, razorback sucker, southwestern willow flycatcher, and Mexican spotted owl.

"The Bureau of Land Management's refusal to redo outdated environmental reviews is as illegal as it is unethical," said Taylor McKinnon, public lands campaigns director at the Center for Biological Diversity. "It should be eager to protect the Grand Canyon and its endangered species; instead, it has chosen to shirk environmental review on behalf of the uranium industry."

The suit also cites violations of mining laws and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act over the agency's alleged failure to require validity exams for the mine's claims and a new plan of operations for the mine; the old plan expired with the mine's 1992 closure. The Interior Department's July 2009 one-million-acre land segregation order, now in force, and its proposed 20-year mineral withdrawal prohibit new mining claims and the exploration and mining of existing claims for which valid existing rights have not been established. Although the Arizona 1 mine falls within the segregation boundary, valid rights have not been established for the mine's claims.

"Arizona 1's original mine owners went bankrupt and thus never established an economically viable uranium deposit required to establish a valid and existing right," noted Roger Clark with the Grand Canyon Trust. "It's time for the BLM to serve the public interest by complying with the law."

Spikes in uranium prices have caused thousands of new uranium claims, dozens of proposed exploration drilling projects, and proposals to reopen old uranium mines adjacent to Grand Canyon. Renewed uranium development threatens to degrade wildlife habitat and industrialize now-wild and iconic landscapes bordering the park; it also threatens to deplete and contaminate aquifers that discharge into Grand Canyon National Park and the Colorado River.

"The Grand Canyon, other public lands, and native peoples are still suffering from the impacts of past uranium mining activities," said Sandy Bahr, chapter director of the Sierra Club's Grand Canyon Chapter. "We need to ensure that we do not repeat that history and allow harm to one of our nation's treasures or to the millions of people who enjoy the lands and rely on the water."

Proposed uranium development has provoked litigation, public protests, and statements of concern and opposition from scientists; city officials; county officials, including Coconino County; former Governor Janet Napolitano; state representatives; the Navajo Nation, and the Kaibab Paiute, Hopi, Hualapai and Havasupai tribes; the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California; and the Southern Nevada Water Authority, among others. Statewide polling conducted by Public Opinion Strategies shows overwhelming public support for withdrawing from mineral entry the lands near Grand Canyon; Arizonans support protecting the Grand Canyon area from uranium mining by a two-to-one margin.

Attorneys representing the plaintiff groups in the recent litigation are Amy Atwood of the Center for Biological Diversity, Neil Levine of Grand Canyon Trust, and Roger Flynn of the Western Mining Action Project.

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