(CN) – Opponents of an active uranium mine 6 miles north of Grand Canyon National Park are likely headed back to the 9th Circuit after a federal judge rejected their environmental claims against regulators that allowed the mine to reopen.
Canada-based Denison Mines reopened the Arizona 1 Mine in 2009 based on an environmental impact study approved by the Bureau of Land Management in 1988. The mine, which has a shaft more than 1,000 feet deep reaching toward an underground stock of uranium ore, sits on the vast, empty Arizona Strip near the Arizona-Utah border, about 35 miles south of Fredonia, Ariz., and 6 miles north of the Grand Canyon’s north rim.
A coalition of environmental groups and American Indian tribes – including the Havasupai Tribe, whose members live on a small reservation deep within the Grand Canyon – sued the bureau and Denison Mines in 2009, arguing that the agency should have required Denison to submit new environmental reviews before resuming mining. Prior to the reopening, the mine hadn’t been active since 1992. Its original owner, Energy Fuels Nuclear, began exploring the site in 1984. The bureau performed an environmental assessment in 1988 and determined that the operation would have no significant environmental impact. With a dip in uranium prices in the early 1990s, Energy Fuels mothballed the mine. Denison purchased it in 2007 in response to a general rise in the uranium market.
Currently Denison takes about 335 tons of uranium ore per day out of the Arizona 1, four days per week, according to a company website.
Denison says it is in various stages of developing several other mines in the Arizona Strip region.
The Center for Biological Diversity, the Grand Canyon Trust, the Sierra Club, the Kaibab Band of Paiute Indians and the Havasupai Tribe claim that, far from having no significant impact, the Arizona 1 Mine and other uranium operations in the canyonlands contaminate the Grand Canyon’s watershed and despoil the area’s world-renowned cultural resources and wildlands.
They are not alone. In 2009, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar proposed to ban new mining claims on some one million acres of public land in northern Arizona’s canyon country in a “response to increased mining interest in the region’s uranium deposits, as reflected in the number of new mining claim locations, and concern over potential impacts of uranium mining to the Grand Canyon watershed, adjacent to Grand Canyon National Park,” according to a Draft Environmental Impact Statement on the proposal published earlier this year.
But as that effort moves forward, opponents of the Arizona 1 Mine met a setback last week when U.S. District Judge David Campbell found that the bureau properly allowed the mine to resume operations without further study of its potential impact on the canyonlands.
“The Court concludes that BLM’s decision to allow Denison to resume operations at Arizona 1 under the 1988 plan of operations was based on a permissible interpretation of the regulations,” Campbell wrote in an order signed May 27 granting summary judgment to the bureau on most of the groups’ claims. “Plaintiffs have not shown BLM’s decision to be arbitrary or capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law. Nor have Plaintiffs shown that BLM has a mandatory duty to require Denison to obtain approval of a new plan of operations to prevent unnecessary and undue degradation of public lands.”
Campbell added that the opponents had made essentially the same arguments as they did in their unsuccessful interlocutory appeal to the 9th Circuit, challenging his denial of their motion for a preliminary injunction to halt mine operations while the lawsuit went forward.
Grand Canyon Trust attorney Gil Levine says the opponents are likely headed back to the San Francisco-based federal appeals court.
“The game is not over,” Levine said in an interview with Courthouse News Service.
He added that the Interior Department’s proposal to withdraw lands around the Grand Canyon from new mining claims could also affect the Arizona 1 since older mines within the withdrawn lands would have to demonstrate their continued viability, according to a plan currently under review.
Despite Levine’s optimism, however, the whole issue of uranium mining in the canyonlands could ultimately hinge – as it has so many times before – on the relative health of the uranium market. According to the draft environmental impact statement on the Department of Interior’s proposed land-withdrawal, uranium exploration and mining in the region heated up again after several decades when uranium ore reached $130 per pound in 2007.
Today, that price hovers around $57.