The Havasupai Tribe, and the Grand Canyon watershed, won in U.S. District Court this week when a judge denied the uranium industry’s motion to overturn a 20-year federal ban on uranium mining on 1 million acres in the ecologically sensitive landmark and haven of sacred places to many tribes. Still under contention, though, are previously existing claims that are held still valid.
The March 20 move upheld a ban signed by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in January 2012, when he prohibited new uranium-mining claims, as well as development on certain old claims whose rights may have expired, for 20 years on 1 million acres surrounding the canyon. In response the National Mining Association, Nuclear Energy Institute, Northwest Mining Association and other groups filed four lawsuits challenging both the ban and the federal government’s authority to enact it. The Havasupai Tribe was among those who stepped in to combat the industry.
“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, in a statement from the Center for Biological Diversity. “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.”
Salazar had enacted a two-year block on new mining claims for those million acres in 2009 to give the department time to study whether to institute a more permanent or longer ban. In March 2011 the state of Arizona’s environmental protection department granted permits to Denison Mines Corp. of Canada to reopen three mines near the canyon, even as the U.S. government was gathering information on whether to extend the ban. In January 2012 the Interior Department announced the 20-year ban, which was then challenged in court.
Uranium mining in the Grand Canyon threatens sacred sites of the Havasupai, Hualapai, Kaibab Paiute, Zuni, Hopi, and Navajo peoples. Tribal health is also at risk, with radioactive material posing a danger to Navajo citizens, said Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly in a statement when the ban was announced in January 2012.
Not covered in the ban protected by the March 20, 2013, court ruling is the question of previously approved mining and new projects on claim sites with existing rights, the Interior Department said in its statement announcing the ban last year. The Bureau of Land Management estimates that as many as 11 uranium mines could be developed under existing rights. On March 7 the Havasupai tribe and three conservation groups filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service for allowing Energy Fuels Resources Inc. to start up a uranium mine near Grand Canyon National Park, citing a lack of formal tribal consultation and the company’s failure to update the federal environmental review it had conducted in 1986.
"We regret that the Forest Service is not protecting our sacred site in the Red Butte Traditional Cultural Property from destruction by uranium mining," said Havasupai tribe chairman Don Watahomigie in a March 7 statement from the Center for Biological Diversity. "The Havasupai are returning to the federal courts to protect our people, our religion and our water."
In addition the four uranium-industry lawsuits that were covered by the March 20 ruling could still raise arguments on other legal grounds, the Center for Biological Diversity said, adding that court proceedings will continue to unfold this spring.