Uranium Mine Near Grand Canyon Approved by Federal Judge

A U.S. District Judge has ruled that the uranium mining company, Energy Fuels Inc., can resume operations at Canyon Mine in Northern Arizona.

The decision comes after environmental groups and the Havasupai tribe filed a lawsuit in March 2013 to stop the company from completing construction of the mine and extracting uranium.

Canyon Mine is in Kaibab National Forest, six miles from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon and four miles from Red Butte, a designated "Traditional Cultural Property." Red Butte, and the area around it--including the meadow under which Canyon Mine sits--is sacred land to many Southwest tribes.

Uranium mining always is controversial, but the location of Canyon Mine -- not only its proximity to the Grand Canyon but the potential opponents say it has to poison ground water that feeds directly into the Colorado River and sustain the greater Grand Canyon ecosystem -- makes it extra controversial.

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Environmental groups have fought uranium mining in the region for decades, often teaming up with the Havasupai and other tribes. This particular lawsuit, Grand Canyon Trust v. Williams is part of a long battle between those groups and mining companies, and has its origins in decisions made more than 30 years ago.

In October 1984 Energy Fuels submitted a mining plan of operations to the Forest Service for Canyon Mine. The company said it expected to extract 200 tons of uranium per day for three-to-five years. As usually happens, the Forest Service spent a few years conducting studies and assessments and released a final environmental impact statement and a "record of decision" approving the request in September 1986.

Shortly after, the Havasupai tribe filed a federal lawsuit challenging the Forest Service's decision, but the tribe lost the case in 1990, as well as an appeal in 1991. Energy Fuels, the largest American uranium company, was free to begin constructing Canyon Mine.

According to Judge David Campbell's decision, the company immediately began building "access roads, storage buildings, a power line, a perimeter fence, diversion structures, a holding pond, a head frame and hoist, and support buildings." (Uranium in this area occurs in what are called "breccia pipes," essentially 1,500-foot-by-300-foot cylindrical deposits with a uranium ore concentration of .5 percent to 1 percent. The company drives a shaft down into the ground next to the deposit, and mines the ore from the side, bringing it to the surface with a system of elevators.)

In 1992, the price of uranium dropped dramatically and the company put the operation on hold. While the mine was technically "on stand-by" for two decades, two crucial changes occurred. In 2010, Red Butte officially was declared a traditional cultural property, a designation that afforded the area greater levels of federal and environmental protection, and in 2012, the Department of Interior "withdrew" over one million acres of federal lands to protect the Grand Canyon and its watershed. The withdrawal prevented new mining in the protected areas but did not apply to already existing, valid mineral claims. Because the Canyon Mine fell into this category, when Energy Fuels announced a plan to resume operations, no federal agency could legally stop it.

The Forest Service did review the mine plans and the original Environmental Impact Statement "to determine if any modification or amendment of the existing Plan of Operations was required and whether there was any new information or changed circumstances indicating unforeseen significant disturbance of surface resources." But the agency found no reason to modify the plan, which meant Energy Fuels was free to proceed.

Part of the basis for this most recent lawsuit was that the Forest Service's mine review did not take into account that Red Butte's status had changed. Without getting into too much detail, there is a provision, Section 106, in the National Historic Preservation Act that "requires federal agencies to take into account the effects of their undertakings on historic properties, and afford the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation a reasonable opportunity to comment." The Forest Service concluded that it didn't need to do the full review, and it maintained that position even after tribal leaders and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation urged them to do one.

As noted in Judge Campbell's decision, "a two-day consultation meeting was held with the tribes in January 2013 [and the] Plaintiffs filed this lawsuit on March 7, 2013, seeking declaratory and injunctive relief." They charge that the Forest Service made a meager attempt to consult with tribes, and that it should not be able to rely on an "obsolete" environmental review from 1986.

Judge Campbell ultimately denied the Plaintiff's request this week, ruling in favor of the Forest Service and Energy Fuels.

Sandy Bahr of the Sierra Club told New Times that while the judge's decision "discouraging and disappointing, it's not precedent-setting and that issue isn't dead because there are additional avenues to pursue." The Plaintiff's have 60 days to file an appeal.

Roland Manakaja, vice Chairman of the Havasupai Tribe, declined to comment on whether the tribe would appeal, explaining to New Times it is actively in discussions about how to move forward.

Katie Davis of the Center for Biological Diversity echoed Manakaja's statement, adding that "this is one battle in a long fight over uranium mining around the Grand Canyon, and while we weren't successful with this one judge, we will continue to fight in the courts for these types of mines to be closed."

Curtis Moore, spokesman for Energy Fuels, deferred to the company's press release for an official statement on the decision, but he did say "just because the environmental impact statement was completed in 1986, it doesn't mean we don't have to comply with new environmental laws"--laws, he says, that are "strict and comprehensive." His point is that if a mine opened 30 years ago and continuously operated, it would have to modify its practices in the event of new regulations, but it wouldn't have to do a new impact statement every time the laws changed, so the rules shouldn't be different for a mine on stand-by.

"One of the things people don't understand is that there are naturally occurring, uranium-bearing breccia pipes inside the walls of the Grand Canyon that have been eroding into the watershed for thousands of years," Moore says. Uranium does occur naturally almost everywhere on earth--including the greater Grand Canyon area. He says he is always curious why environmental groups criticize uranium-mining operations, but seem to ignore natural erosional processes that actually deposit uranium into the watershed, unlike their mining operations."

(According to the Center for Biological Diversity, "a 2010 U.S. Geological Survey report noted that past samples of groundwater beneath the mine exhibited dissolved uranium concentrations in excess of EPA drinking water standards. Groundwater threatened by the mine feeds municipal wells and seeps and springs in Grand Canyon, including Havasu Springs and Havasu Creek.")

As for the future, surface development at Canyon Mine is almost complete, and the company plans to relocate the 40-50 employees currently working at Pinenut Mine--a different and almost depleted uranium mine in Arizona--to Canyon Mine sometime late this summer, and then begin extracting ore.

"This uranium project could haunt the Grand Canyon region for decades to come," Katie Davis with the Center for Biological Diversity is quoted saying in the plaintiff's joint press release. "Uranium mining leaves a highly toxic legacy that endangers human health, wildlife, and the streams and aquifers that feed the Grand Canyon. It's disappointing to see the Forest Service prioritizing the extraction industry over the long-term protection of a place as iconic as the Grand Canyon."

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Miriam is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Miriam Wasser