Nuclear Industry Sues to Reverse Grand Canyon Uranium Land Withdrawal

WASHINGTON, DC, March 1, 2012 (ENS) – The Nuclear Energy Institute and the National Mining Association, Monday filed a federal lawsuit seeking to reverse the Obama administration’s withdrawal of one million acres of public land in Arizona from uranium mining for 20 years.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced the continuation of the government’s moratorium on new hardrock uranium mining claims on land surrounding the Grand Canyon on January 9. The public land at issue is not within the Grand Canyon National Park or the buffer zone protecting the national park.

Filed in U.S. District Court in Arizona, the industry lawsuit argues that Salazar “lacks legal authority to make withdrawals of public lands exceeding 5,000 acres.”

The lawsuit contends that the land withdrawal is an “arbitrary agency action” under the Administrative Procedure Act, and that it fails to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to take the “hard look” at the withdrawal’s consequences that the U.S. Supreme Court required in a unanimous 1989 decision.

Uranium mine in Arizona near the Grand Canyon (Photo by EcoFlight)

In support of their case, the two industry organizations cite the statement in the Arizona Wilderness Act of 1984 that, “Congress does not intend that the designation of wilderness areas in the State of Arizona lead to the creation of protective perimeters or buffer zones around each wilderness area.”

“The proposed land withdrawal is not justified by information in the Interior Department’s environmental assessment. The proposed land withdrawal is designed to protect against situations and circumstances that no longer exist,” said Richard Myers, Nuclear Energy Institute vice president for policy development, planning and supplier programs.

“It is a mistake to judge today’s uranium mining activities by practices and standards from 50 to 60 years ago,” said Myers. “Yet that, apparently, is what the Interior Department has done in its final environmental impact statement.”

The affected lands are situated in three areas, all in the vicinity of the Grand Canyon or Grand Canyon National Park, in Mohave and Coconino counties of northern Arizona. Approximately 3,200 mining claims are currently located in the withdrawal areas.

“A withdrawal is the right approach for this priceless American landscape,” Salazar said on January 9. “People from all over the country and around the world come to visit the Grand Canyon. Numerous American Indian tribes regard this magnificent icon as a sacred place and millions of people in the Colorado River Basin depend on the river for drinking water, irrigation, industrial and environmental use.”

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.

The withdrawal does not prohibit previously approved uranium mining, new projects that could be approved on claims and sites with valid existing rights.

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, according to the Department of the Interior’s Final Environmental Impact Statement, FEIS.

Environmental groups and tribes applauded the withdrawal decision. Gene Karpinski said on behalf of the League of Conservation Voters, “This is a big win for all of us who care about protecting the Grand Canyon’s natural splendor. Extending the current moratorium on new uranium mining claims will protect tourism related jobs, drinking water for millions downstream, and critical wildlife habitats.”

But Myers says that “contrary to the assertions by the administration, today’s environmental laws ensure that ore extraction and production at uranium mines have minimal environmental impact on the surrounding land, water and wildlife.”

Uranium resources in the Arizona Strip represent some of the highest-grade ores located in the United States. These uranium resources are higher grade than 85 percent of the world’s uranium resources, according to the Interior Department’s FEIS.

“These resources represent as much as 375 million pounds of uranium, approximately 40 percent of U.S. reserves and more than seven times current U.S. annual demand,” the Nuclear Energy Institute said in a statement announcing the lawsuit.

But Bradley Van Gosen of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Central Mineral Resources Team based in Denver, Colorado says that the 40 percent figure is “much too high a value.”

In a January 26 letter answering a request from the Grand Canyon Trust for an evaluation of the statement, “Nearly 40% of our nation’s uranium deposits are located in Forest Service and BLM lands in northern Arizona,” Van Gosen writes, “Up front, I can say that this statement is not accurate as stated.”

Van Gosen says that the 40 percent figure, which originated with an industry witness who provided it in testimony to Congress, “mixes and compares endowment with reserves, which is inappropriate and misleading.”

“The 40% value was based on comparing two resource assessments – (1) one conducted by the USGS that provided an estimate of the uranium resource endowment in the Grand Canyon region and (2) another compiled by the U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA) for the estimated uranium reserve for the entire United States,” explains Van Gosen.

“Endowment refers to the in-place mineral resource, some of which is discovered, and the remainder that is predicted to occur based on favorable geologic conditions; much of the endowment resource is not yet proven or discovered,” writes Van Gosen.

“In contrast,” he writes, “reserves apply to ore-bearing rock that has been determined by a mining company or independent analyst as likely economic, given a multitude of factors (deposit form and grade, mining factors, economics, regulations, and many, many more considerations). The USGS does not calculate reserves.”

On behalf of the nuclear industry, Myers argues that the world needs the uranium that would be extracted from the lands withdrawn by the Interior Department because the world’s nuclear power plants currently consume more uranium than is produced.

“Current worldwide uranium demand is roughly 180 million pounds per year, but worldwide production is approximately 140 million pounds per year,” he said. “The balance comes from secondary sources of supply, including inventories held by the U.S. and Russian governments. U.S. uranium production in 2010 was approximately four million pounds.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2012. All rights reserved.