Uranium mining ban challenged in federal court

Industry representatives file lawsuit alleging 1 million acre ban does not comply with National Environmental Policy Act

WASHINGTON, D.C. - The Nuclear Energy Institute, together with the National Mining Association (NMA), filed a lawsuit Feb. 27 in U.S. Federal District Court in Arizona seeking to reverse the Obama administration's withdrawal of approximately 1 million acres of federal land in the Arizona Strip from uranium mining for 20 years.

U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced the ban on new hardrock mining claims on land surrounding the Grand Canyon on Jan. 9. The land is not within the Grand Canyon National Park or the buffer zone protecting the national park.

The NMA/NEI lawsuit argues that Salazar "lacks legal authority to make withdrawals of public lands exceeding 5,000 acres," that the land withdrawal is an "arbitrary agency action" under the Administrative Procedure Act, and that it fails to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to take the "hard look" at the withdrawal's consequences that the U.S. Supreme Court required in a unanimous 1989 decision.

The lawsuit also notes that the Arizona Wilderness Act of 1984 states that, "Congress does not intend that the designation of wilderness areas in the State of Arizona lead to the creation of protective perimeters or buffer zones around each wilderness area."

Richard Myers, NEI vice president for policy development, planning and supplier programs, said the land withdrawal is not justified by information in the Interior Department's environmental assessment.

"The proposed land withdrawal is designed to protect against situations and circumstances that no longer exist," Myers said. "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 added that today's environmental laws ensure that ore extraction and production at uranium mines have minimal environmental impact on the surrounding land, water and wildlife.

Uranium resources in the Arizona Strip represent some of the highest-grade ores located in the United States. According to the Interior Department's final environmental impact statement, these uranium resources are higher grade than 85 percent of the world's uranium resources. The resources in Arizona represent 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.

Environmental groups have strongly supported the ban, claiming the mining could contaminate the Canyon's watershed.

But, some GOP legislators, including Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., who represents Arizona's Sixth District, claim uranium mining would provide necessary job stimulus.

"Uranium mining outside of Grand Canyon National Park can create jobs and stimulate the economy in northern Arizona without jeopardizing the splendor and natural beauty within the park," Flake said in July. "The Obama administration is stepping on Arizona's economy and overstepping in terms of government regulations by banning new uranium mining claims in northern Arizona."

The ban will not affect more than 3,000 mining claims already staked near the Grand Canyon.

The Bush administration previously opened up the land to new mining claims. Salazar reversed the Bush policy in 2009, calling for a two-year moratorium on new mining claims around the Canyon. A six-month extension was announced last year.

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