An effort to overturn the Obama administration's moratorium on new mining claims on some 1 million acres around Grand Canyon National Park has been rejected by a federal judge.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar approved the ban in January 2012 to protect the Grand Canyon’s watersheds. The withdrawal prohibits new mining claims and development on old claims that lack “valid existing rights” to mine. At the time, Interior staff noted that the Public Land Order to withdraw these acres for 20 years from new mining claims and sites under the 1872 Mining Law, subject to valid existing rights, is authorized by the Federal Land Policy and Management Act.
Last week U.S. District Judge David Campbell denied a uranium industry motion to overturn the ban. The National Mining Association, Nuclear Energy Institute, Northwest Mining Association and others last year had filed four lawsuits challenging the withdrawal and the underlying federal authority to enact any withdrawals larger than 5,000 acres. The Havasupai tribe and conservation groups intervened to uphold both.
“It’s a great day for the Grand Canyon, and for rivers, wildlife, and communities across the West,” said Ted Zukoski of Earthjustice, one the attorneys representing conservation groups and the Havasupai tribe in the case. “The uranium industry was hoping to cripple the Interior Department’s ability to temporarily protect lands from destructive mining. Today’s opinion upholds the Interior Department’s authority to take such protective measures.”
The industry groups had claimed that the presence of an unconstitutional legislative veto in the subsection that contains the Interior Secretary’s authority to withdraw land parcels larger than 5,000 acres means that the Interior Secretary had no authority at all to withdraw such lands. The judge ruled -- as the government, Havasupai tribe and conservation groups had argued -- that the unconstitutional veto provision could be “severed” from the law without affecting the Grand Canyon’s watershed withdrawal or the Interior Department’s general authority to protect such lands.
“Today’s ruling protects not only the Grand Canyon’s watershed, but millions of acres of other public land that have been withdrawn to protect natural values from destructive mining,” said Taylor McKinnon with the Center for Biological Diversity. “By upholding the federal withdrawal authority, today’s ruling is good news for public lands, water and wildlife.”
The court’s decision does not end the four industry lawsuits challenging the Grand Canyon mineral withdrawal decision. Industry can still raise arguments that Interior Secretary Salazar failed to properly consider environmental and economic impacts of the withdrawal. Those issues are likely to be briefed this spring.
Last May, Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives said they had uncovered an email trail showing that the U.S. Bureau of Land Management relied more on "confusion and obfuscation" than science in justifying the 20-year ban.
Emails from Larry Martin, a hydrogeologist with the National Park Service Water Resources Division, expressed his opinion that the watershed threats cited in the draft EIS were overblown.
"My personal and professional opinion is that the potential impacts stated in the DEIS as (sic) grossly overestimated and even then they are very minor to negligible," Mr. Martin wrote in an email to colleagues on March 7, 2011, when the draft EIS was open for public comments. "The DEIS goes to great lengths in an attempt to establish impacts to water resources from uranium mining. It fails to do so, but instead creates enough confusion and obfuscation of hydrogeologic principles to create the illusion that there could be adverse impacts if uranium mining occurred."
Interior Department officials at the time declined to get into the specifics of the emails, but rather said the withdrawal "is the right decision for this priceless American landscape -- one that was based on the best available science."