Mining Threatens Water, Wildlife, Sacred Lands
Denver— Arizona’s Havasupai Tribe and conservation groups filed legal papers on Monday to defend the U.S. Department of the Interior’s 20-year ban on new uranium mining claims across 1 million acres of public lands adjacent to the Grand Canyon.
The Havasupai Tribe, Grand Canyon Trust, Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club and National Parks Conservation Association filed a motion to intervene in a lawsuit filed last November in U.S. district court in Arizona by uranium prospector Gregory Yount. The motion seeks to defend Interior’s decision to protect the Grand Canyon’s springs and creeks, wildlife and vistas from new uranium-mining pollution; the interveners are represented by public-interest law firms Earthjustice and Western Mining Action Project.
“The Havasupai Tribal Council and the Havasupai people strongly support the Department of the Interior’s January 2012 decision to withdraw 1 million acres of public lands from new mining claims,” said Matthew Putesoy, Sr., Havasupai tribal vice chairman. “The Havasupai Tribe has long opposed mining on our aboriginal lands because of the threat uranium mining poses to our traditional uses, practices, sacred places, and to the plants, wildlife, air and water.”
Ted Zukoski, Earthjustice staff attorney who is representing the groups in the lawsuit, said: “The lands surrounding the Grand Canyon are full of natural beauty. The life-giving waters and deer, elk, condors, and other wildlife found there deserve protection from the toxic pollution and industrialization threatened by large-scale uranium mining. We intend to defend these lands from this ill-considered attack by the uranium industry.”
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar issued the 20-year ban in January; it prohibits new mining claims and mine development on existing claims without valid permits. Mr. Yount’s lawsuit alleges that the Interior Department’s exhaustive, 700-page evaluation of environmental impacts was inadequate.
In the past month, two similar suits were filed by mining and uranium-industry trade associations. The groups filing Monday plan to intervene in those cases also.
“The Grand Canyon is an icon across the globe, a biodiversity hotspot and the economic engine for a whole region,” said Taylor McKinnon, public lands campaigns director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Interior’s decision to protect it from toxic uranium-mining pollution was undeniably the right one, and we’ll vigorously defend it.”
Uranium pollution already plagues the Grand Canyon and surrounding area. Proposals for new mining have prompted protests, litigation and proposed legislation. Because dozens of new mines threaten to industrialize iconic and sacred natural areas, destroy wildlife habitat and pollute or deplete aquifers, scientists, tribal and local governments and businesses have all voiced support for the new protections enacted by Interior.
“We are pleased the Obama administration took the action necessary to protect Grand Canyon National Park, as are the many visitors, businesses and organizations, local governments and Native American tribes who care about the park and the surrounding public lands,” said Sandy Bahr, Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon chapter director. “The Sierra Club is proud of its 100-plus year history of acting to protect the Grand Canyon, and we will continue this work by doing all we can to ensure that uranium mines are not allowed to contaminate the groundwater and threaten streams and drinking water.”
One of the great symbols of the American West, the Grand Canyon was first protected as a national monument by Theodore Roosevelt in 1908, and is surrounded by millions of additional acres of public lands that include wilderness areas, two national monuments, lands designated to protect endangered species and cultural resources, and ponderosa pine forests. The canyon area is also home to the Havasupai, Kaibab Band of Paiutes, Hualapai and Navajo tribes. The greater Grand Canyon region attracts about 5 million tourists and recreationists per year. The Grand Canyon has been designated a “World Heritage” site.
“Tourism, not mining, is the mainstay of the region’s economy,” said David Nimkin, Southwest regional director of National Parks and Conservation Association. “Millions enjoy the Grand Canyon each year and power the economic engine for much of the Southwest’s tourist industry. The last thing visitors want to find when visiting the Grand Canyon is industrial development and uranium mines.”
Interior’s study of the mining timeout was released in October 2011. It showed that without a withdrawal in place, 26 new uranium mines and 700 uranium exploration projects would be developed, resulting in more than 1,300 acres of surface disturbance and the consumption of 316 million gallons of water. Under the ban, existing mining continues, but present mine operations are projected to have about one-tenth of the surface impacts and one-third the water usage of a no-withdrawal alternative over a 20-year period. With new uranium mining, the increased potential for depletion and contamination of aquifers could pollute springs and seeps, resulting in uranium levels twice as high as EPA drinking standards, endangering public health and wildlife, and compromising the values of the tribes who consider the springs sacred.
Water utilities in Arizona, California and Nevada have expressed serious concerns about possible contamination of the Colorado River if uranium mining is permitted around the Grand Canyon and the potential devastating effect it could have on the 25 million people in their states that rely on water from the Colorado River for drinking and agriculture.
“Uranium mining imposes well-documented and unacceptable risks to the people and natural resources of our region,” said Grand Canyon Trust program director Roger Clark. “The lawsuit demonstrates how little industry cares — in the face of thorough impact studies, and massive local, tribal, economic and public sentiment against new mining — about the many negative consequences associated with rampant industrialization of Grand Canyon’s watersheds.”