In early October, an Arizona federal judge upheld the Obama Administration’s 2012 withdrawal of over one million acres of federal lands surrounding Grand Canyon National Park from uranium mining. Originally imposed by then-Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, the mining industry challenged the ban arguing that the 700-page Environmental Impact Statement was inadequate, failed to address “scientific controversies”, and was unconstitutional.
With the court’s decision to uphold the Department of Interior’s (DIO) decision, the lands around the Grand Canyon will be closed to the exploration and development of uranium mining claims for 20 years, thus protecting the Colorado River watershed and several sacred Native American sites. According to the government’s study, removing the ban would mean that 26 new uranium mines and 700 uranium exploration projects could be developed.
According Roger Clark, air quality and clean energy director at the Grand Canyon Trust, the ruling affirms conclusions by five federal agencies, including scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey — that uranium mining poses unacceptable risks to Grand Canyon’s water, wildlife, and people.
“Uranium mines threaten hundreds of the Grand Canyon seeps and springs that provide precious water to thousands of desert-dwelling species,” wrote Clark. “Every new mine sacrifices cultural sites and fragments wildlife habitat, polluting the park with dirt roads, dust, heavy machinery, noise, off-road drilling rigs, power lines, and relentless truck traffic.”
A map of the “Arizona Strip” shows existing and proposed uranium mines near the Grand Canyon.
CREDIT: Grand Canyon Trust
Due to the sheer size and remoteness of the landscape, the EIS authors adopted a “cautious and careful approach” to assessing the potential impacts of uranium mining. They ultimately found that “the risk of groundwater contamination from uranium mining was low, but that the possible consequences of such contamination were severe.”
Arizona federal district court judge David G. Campbell found this approach warranted, writing that “the Court can find no legal principle that prevents the DIO from acting in the face of uncertainty,” and that the Secretary of the Interior had the authority to “err on the side of caution in protecting a national treasure — Grand Canyon national park.”
When President Theodore Roosevelt created the Grand Canyon Preserve in 1906 he didn’t allow mining on much of the land, but mines were opened on land surrounding the canyon. Often on Native American lands, including the Havasupai and Navajo, these mines have become dangerous radioactive sites. There are over 500 abandoned uranium mines on Navajo territory and the federal government is still working with the Navajo to determine the best way to address the issue. According to the EPA, potential health effects include lung cancer from inhalation of radioactive particles, as well as bone cancer and impaired kidney function from exposure to radionuclides in drinking water.
“In sum, this decision supports a precautionary approach to mineral withdrawals,” wrote Hillary M. Hoffmann, an environmental law professor at Vermont Law School. “It affirms the agency’s choice, ‘when faced with uncertainty due to a lack of definitive information, and a low risk of significant environmental harm,’ to temporarily withdraw land from mineral entry before conducting a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review.”
Hoffman writes that while this may run counter to general policy underlying NEPA, in this instance the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) actions prevented the development of thousands of uranium claims until the agency could fully study the impacts of those claims and determine whether to make a full withdrawal.
“As the district court noted, if the BLM waited to act until after the NEPA review process was complete, the claims may have become vested and at that point, it would have been too late to protect the Colorado River watershed and the Havasupai sacred sites,” she writes.
When Salazar first banned this block of 633,547 acres of public lands and 360,002 acres of National Forest land from mining in 2012, a number of politicians objected, including U.S. Senators Orrin Hatch (R-UT), John McCain (R-AZ), John Barrasso (R-WY), and Mike Lee (R-UT). Sen. Hatch said mining the land “poses no environmental threat” and that the announcement was another sign that the Obama Administration “is one of the most anti-American energy presidencies in history.”
Fast-forward two years later and there are currently 13 candidates up for election in November who want to sell or seize public lands for drilling, mining, or logging and seven senators not up for reelection, including four Arizonans: Sen. McCain, Sen. Jeff Flake, U.S. Rep. Trent Franks, and State Rep. Andy Tobin.
The uranium mining companies have 60 days to appeal Judge Campbell’s decision to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and are likely to do so, according to the Center For Biological Diversity.