Uranium in Canyon Country: Part 1 of 2: Supreme Court asked to overturn decision on Grand Canyon uranium mining

Mining industry groups allege Obama-era withdrawal unconstitutional

Mining industry groups are asking the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn a Ninth Circuit decision upholding a 2012 uranium mining ban around Grand Canyon. (Blake McCord/Grand Canyon Trust)

Mining industry groups are asking the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn a Ninth Circuit decision upholding a 2012 uranium mining ban around Grand Canyon. (Blake McCord/Grand Canyon Trust)

GRAND CANYON, Ariz. — Mining industry trade groups petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court March 9 to review the Interior Department’s 20-year ban on new uranium mining claims on around 1 million acres of public land adjacent to the Grand Canyon. The requests from the American Exploration and Mining Association and the National Mining Association came in response to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision last December, which upheld the Grand Canyon mineral withdrawal.   

After a temporary 20-year moratorium was placed in 2009, the current mineral withdrawal was made permanent by former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in 2012. The 20-year ban, which did not apply to existing claims or mines, was meant to allow study of the effects of uranium on the Grand Canyon watershed, according to Bob Abbey, who served as the Bureau of Land Management director at the time. Abbey said the withdrawal would allow future decision-makers to make choices based on the best available scientific information.

The withdrawn area includes 355,874 acres of U.S. Forest Service land on the Kaibab National Forest; 626,678 acres of Bureau of Land Management lands; and 23,993 acres of split estate — where surface lands are held by other owners while subsurface minerals are owned by the federal government. The affected lands, all in the vicinity of the Grand Canyon or Grand Canyon National Park, are located in Mohave and Coconino Counties of northern Arizona.

The Havasupai Tribe, Grand Canyon Trust, Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity and National Parks Conservation Association intervened in the lawsuit in 2013 to defend Interior’s decision to protect Grand Canyon’s springs and creeks, wildlife, and vistas from potential uranium-mining pollution. The tribe and conservation groups are represented by the public-interest law firms Earthjustice and Western Mining Action Project.

“This is an attack on the Grand Canyon region, which is bad enough,” said Ted Zukoski, an Earthjustice attorney representing the Havasupai Tribe and conservation groups. “It’s also a long-shot attempt to kneecap the Interior Department’s authority to ever again protect large public landscapes from the damage and pollution hardrock mining can have on recreation, cultural resources, wildlife, clean air and water, and the communities that rely on those values.”

The mining industry’s petitions allege that the Interior secretary’s authority under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act to protect areas larger than 5,000 acres from mining is unconstitutional. A three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit and U.S. District Court Judge David Campbell of Phoenix previously rejected that argument.

U.S. Geological Survey scientists have said they don’t have enough funding to complete research into the effects of uranium contamination on groundwater, although to date their research indicates 15 springs near Grand Canyon already have uranium levels higher than what is considered acceptable for drinking water.

Luke Popovich, spokesman for NMA, called the Ninth Circuit’s decision disappointing and said there was little evidence that mining outside national park boundaries had a negative impact on the visitor experience or the environment. Native tribes in the region disagree.

Navajo Nation Council Speaker LoRenzo Bates points to the legacy of pollution and health problems borne by the Nation, where 523 abandoned uranium mines sit shuttered, some near family homes. Nearly 30 million tons of uranium ore was mined on or near the Navajo Nation for the purpose of producing nuclear weapons during the Cold War until the last mine was shuttered in 1986.

“For decades, Navajo people have continued to suffer from the effects of uranium mining,” Bates said.

Carletta Tilousi, a Havasupai Tribal Council member who has been a vocal opponent of uranium mining near her ancestral home, testified in Washington D.C. last December that reversing the ban would cause irreparable harm to her tribe, as well as nearly 40 million people who rely on the Colorado River for drinking water.

“Uranium contamination … will not only poison my family, my Tribe, ancestral lands, and me, but also millions of people living downstream,” Tilousi said. “Opening up this area to uranium and other mining would be tragic and an environmental nightmare.”

The Supreme Court will review the petitions after the Havasupai Tribe and conservation groups have an opportunity to respond. The court could take the case for further review or reject the petitions and let the Ninth Circuit decision stand. According to Earthjustice attorneys, the court denies more than 90 percent of the petitions it receives.

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