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Court upholds uranium mining ban around Grand Canyon but allows nearby mine

Visitors to Mather Point at Grand Canyon National Park look out over a rare total cloud inversion in 2013. (National Park Service, Erin Whittaker/AP)

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit on Tuesday upheld a 20-year ban on uranium mining around Grand Canyon National Park but ruled in a separate case that a uranium company could open a mine nearby.

The two unanimous rulings by the three-judge panel came as the Trump administration considers lifting the ban, in place since 2012, as part of a broader effort to boost domestic energy production and promote the mining of critical minerals in the United States. A House Natural Resources subcommittee held a hearing Tuesday in which Republicans warned against putting federal lands off-limits to mining.

The 2012 ban blocked new mining claims and placed restrictions on mine development on existing claims in a million-acre area around the Grand Canyon park, though the Interior Department indicated that up to 11 claims could proceed. The appellate court ruled that imposing a freeze on new claims “for a limited period will permit more careful, longer-term study of the uncertain effects of uranium mining in the area and better-informed decision making in the future.”

The National Mining Association and other groups had challenged the ban, while the Havasupai Tribe, Grand Canyon Trust, Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity and National Parks Conservation Association joined Interior in seeking to continue it. The U.S. District Court in Arizona ruled in favor of the federal government and its allies in 2014, and lawyers for the Justice Department argued the case before the 9th Circuit just weeks before President Barack Obama left office.

Havasupai tribal council member Carletta Tilousi is one of nearly 780 tribal members living about 15 miles from the national park on the canyon’s South Rim. She testified Tuesday before the House Natural Resources subcommittee on energy and mineral resources, which titled its hearing “Examining Consequences of America’s Growing Dependence on Foreign Minerals.”

Tilousi said she worries about air and water contamination given uranium’s toxicity and the ensuing health risks that could stem from mining. But Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.), who chairs the subcommittee, accused her of engaging in “scare tactics,” saying that when it comes to the risks associated with mining, “You’re not entitled to your own facts.”

In the separate case, the 9th Circuit ruled that Energy Fuels Resources (USA) Inc. can open its Canyon Mine in Kaibab National Forest, six miles south of the Grand Canyon. While the site received a federal permit to open in 1986, its development stopped in the 1990s. The judges said Energy Fuels Resources can start operations without having to engage in tribal consultations or undergo a new federal environmental review.

“This is not a partisan issue,” company spokesman Curtis Moore in an email. “We demonstrate through our actions each and every day that we operate responsibly in providing the fuel for clean, carbon-free electricity.”

It was a second victory for the company in as many weeks. Last week’s decision by President Trump to scale back the Bears Ears National Monument will facilitate access to uranium claims. Executives had pushed the administration to downsize the Utah site.

Although it is unclear whether either appellate decision will be taken to the Supreme Court, the debate will continue over how much federal lands should be open for mining. The Trump administration could still lift the ban years before it is set to expire.

In an email, National Mining Association spokesman Luke Popovich called the court’s action on the ban “disappointing” and called on lawmakers and the administration, “working with the impacted states, to reevaluate whether the withdrawal was justified based on the scientific, technical and socioeconomic facts.”

Any push to expand mining on public lands is likely to spark a new legal battle. Stephen Bloch, legal director for the advocacy group Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, said Tuesday that the effort to expand domestic uranium mining because of what some proponents say are national security reasons is “a ruse.”

“We’re going to be getting [uranium] from the Canadians, which is where we’ve been getting it for decades,” he said. “That seems pretty stable to me.”

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