Federal appellate judges affirmed Thursday a lower court's rejection of a legal challenge from environmentalists and the Havasupai Tribe against mining uranium in an area near the Grand Canyon, with one exception.
That exception could still potentially prevent uranium mining in the Canyon Mine, a 17-acre site about six miles south of the Grand Canyon.
Abbie Fink, a spokesperson for the Havasupai Tribe, called the decision "unexpected and encouraging."
The company that owns the mine, Energy Fuels Resources Inc., remained optimistic about its chances of retaining a valid claim to operate.
"We're very confident that we'll prevail on the merits, but we'll go through the process," Curtis Moore, a spokesperson for Energy Fuels, said. The Ninth Circuit remanded the case back to the district court on "a pretty narrow issue," he said. "But we'll see."
The Center for Biological Diversity, one of the plaintiffs in the case, warns that mining could devastate surrounding ecosystems and aquifers. Contamination from uranium mining would be nearly impossible to reverse, they say. The Havasupai Tribe, Sierra Club and Grand Canyon Trust are also plaintiffs in the case.
Indigenous communities fear harmful effects on their health, as well as damage to the waters they depend on. Canyon Mine is about four miles from Red Butte, a site that is sacred to the Havasupai Tribe.
A three-judge panel in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held Thursday that Energy Fuels Resources had a valid existing right to operate Canyon Mine in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act and the National Historic Preservation Act.
However, the judges also determined that the validity of that right should have been assessed on the basis of the 1976 Federal Land Policy and Management Act, and not the General Mining Act of 1972, which the district court used in a previous decision.
The exception sends the case back to the Arizona District Court, which has to decide whether under the federal management act the mine has a valid existing right or not.
The Forest Service approved plans to build Canyon Mine in 1988. In 2012, the administration of President Barack Obama issued a 20-year freeze on uranium mining for 1 million acres around the Grand Canyon, known as the withdrawal area. However, that suspension still allowed for mining at sites with pre-existing claims.
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That year, the Forest Service concluded that Energy Fuels had a valid, existing right to mine in the withdrawal area. Environmental groups and the Havasupai Tribe challenged that in court, but in December, the Arizona District Court rejected their challenge. The plaintiffs then subsequently petitioned for a rehearing of the validity determination.
"I don't know what they'd do if they [the lower court] decided it wasn’t a valid existing right," Sandy Bahr, director of the Grand Canyon Chapter of the Sierra Club. "But if they don’t have a valid existing right, then they can’t mine Canyon Mine.”
You can read the judges' opinion here: