Groups Win Chance To Intervene In Lawsuit Over Uranium Mining Around Grand Canyon National Park

Five groups, including the National Parks Conservation Association and the Sierra Club, are being allowed to intervene in a lawsuit challenging the Interior Department's decision to withdraw 1 million acres surrounding Grand Canyon National Park from uranium mining.

At stake is whether Interior's decision to withdraw the lands from hard-rock mining for 20 years will stand. A prospector, Gregory Yount, brought a complaint against the decision fall, and recently amended it to seek an injunction to block the withdrawal and for declaratory relief.

According to court filings, Mr. Yount "owns two hardrock mining claims for uranium in the Tusayan Ranger District in the Kaibab National Forest south of the Grand Canyon. He has not yet begun drilling on this land, but believes his claims contain uranium. Due to the withdrawal, he is now unable to conduct exploratory drilling."

In his filings, Mr. Yount maintains the the Final Environmental Impact Statement the U.S. Bureau of Land Management prepared on the question of withdrawing the lands violates the National Environmental Policy Act, and claims the BLM's Record of Decision "violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution because it appears to endorse the religious beliefs of American Indians."

On Friday, U.S. District Judge Frederick J. Martone agreed to let EarthJustice intervene in the case to support Interior's decision

“Today’s decision means we’ll have a seat in the courtroom to protect the Grand Canyon region's life-giving waters and deer, elk, condors, and other wildlife, as well as the tremendous cultural resources so important to the Havasupai Tribe,” said Ted Zukoski, an attorney at Earthjustice representing the coalition.

Earthjustice, together with public interest law firm Western Mining Action Project, will represent the Havasupai Tribe, Grand Canyon Trust, Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, and National Parks Conservation Association to defeat the lawsuit.

Uranium pollution already plagues the Grand Canyon and surrounding area, according to Earthjustice. Proposals for new mining have prompted protests, litigation and proposed legislation. Because dozens of new mines threaten to industrialize iconic and sacred natural areas, destroy wildlife habitat and pollute or deplete aquifers, scientists, tribal and local governments, and businesses have all voiced support for the new protections enacted by Interior.

The withdrawal does not prohibit previously approved uranium mining, new projects that could be approved on claims and sites with valid existing rights, according to Interior officials. The withdrawal would allow other natural resource development in the area, including mineral leasing, geothermal leasing and mineral materials sales, to the extent consistent with the applicable land use plans. Approximately 3,200 mining claims are currently located in the withdrawal area.

During the withdrawal period, the BLM projects that up to 11 uranium mines, including four that are currently approved, could still be developed based on valid pre-existing rights – meaning the jobs supported by mining in the area would increase or remain flat as compared to the current level, according to the BLM’s analysis.

By comparison, during the 1980s, nine uranium mines were developed on these lands and five were mined out. Without the withdrawal, there could be 30 uranium mines in the area over the next 20 years, including the four that are currently approved, with as many as six operating at one time, the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) estimates.

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.