Supreme Court asked to open public lands near the Grand Canyon to uranium mining

There is currently a 20-year mining ban on land that the Havasupai tribe relies on for water. 

The Grand Canyon. CREDIT: Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images
The Grand Canyon. CREDIT: Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images

Mining groups are pushing the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn an Obama-era rule banning uranium mining near Grand Canyon National Park in the latest push to open up public lands to industry.

On March 9, the National Mining Association (NMA) and the American Exploration and Mining Association (AEMA) filed petitions asking the court to reverse a 2012 decision to ban new uranium mining claims on more than 1 million acres of public lands near the Grand Canyon.

This comes after the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decided last December to uphold the ban on mining after a previous challenge by industry. The ban — implemented by former Department of the Interior Secretary Ken Salazar — restricts mining for 20 years on land that the Havasupai tribe relies on for water. 

The NMA is now arguing that Salazar did not have the constitutional authority to declare the ban, a spokesperson told news agencies, adding uranium mining would not harm the land.


Environmental groups disagree. Conservationists say the ban should remain in place until more research is done to understand the risks and impacts of potential water contamination. “Is it worth gambling the future of the Grand Canyon to allow private companies to line their pockets when the risks to groundwater are unknown,” Roger Clark, a program director at the Grand Canyon Trust, said in a statement.

Scientists may not have the chance to fully study the impacts of uranium mining in the area, however, if President Donald Trump’s proposed 2019 budget is approved.

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) is currently conducting a 15-year study to determine whether the 1 million acres of public land surrounding the national park would need protection from new uranium mines. Scientists say they don’t have enough information about whether radioactive elements from mining are harming plants, animals, and the Colorado River — a water source that runs through the Grand Canyon and is relied upon by more than 30 million people across Arizona, Nevada, California, and Mexico.

Under Trump’s proposed 2019 budget, all of the funding currently allocated to this research through USGS’s Environmental Health Mission — which has been between $800,000 to $1.5 million a year between 2013 and 2017 — would be cut.

The possibility of uranium mining near the Grand Canyon would only be the latest effort by the Trump administration to open up public lands to the oil, gas, and mining industries. In December, Trump dramatically reduced the size of two national monuments in Utah previously off limits to mining and drilling — Bears Ears’ National Monument and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.


Soon after the announcement, it was reported that a uranium company successfully lobbied the Trump administration to shrink the size of Bears Ears. And as documents revealed earlier this month, the potential for oil and gas drilling was a key reason to decrease the size of the two national monuments.

The land surrounding the Grand Canyon National Park has been identified as an area of opportunity by the administration. A report issued last November by the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommended lifting the Obama-era 20 year ban on uranium mining in the Grand Canyon watershed.

Right now, the economics of uranium mining in the U.S. aren’t strong. The global market is so flooded that the industry isn’t profitable, and some existing mines are sitting idle due to record low prices.

Regardless, industry has long been pushing for the 2012 ban to be lifted. Last May, Reuters reported that Vane Minerals in Arizona wrote a letter to Zinke stating that the company would appreciate if he could begin the process to “terminate” the ban.

It’s unclear, however, whether the Supreme Court will take up this case — it typically denies more than 90 percent of the petitions it receives.


The mining groups’ petition to the Supreme Court represents an “attack on the Grand Canyon region,” Ted Zukoski, an Earthjustice attorney representing the Havasupai Tribe and conservation groups, said in a statement.

“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,” Zukoski said.