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Environmental Groups Sue to Protect Grand Canyon From Mining

Randy Boswell

East from Hopi Point at Sunset. Grand Canyon NP, AZ (flickr photo by Fundenburg)

A planned Canadian-owned uranium mine near the Grand Canyon is being targeted in a lawsuit launched by three U.S. environmental groups that claim the project threatens four at-risk species of fish and an endangered songbird that inhabit the iconic Arizona park.

The president of Toronto-based Denison Mines told Canwest News Service that the legal action has the company "looking at what the potential ramifications might be," but insists the mine poses no harm to the famed natural wonder or its animal residents.

"We're within 10 or 15 miles (16 to 24 kilometres) of the north rim of the Grand Canyon," said Ron Hochstein. "We're in that general district. But geologically and everything, it's so separate that some of the allegations they are making are not even feasible."

The Sierra Club, U.S. Center for Biological Diversity and Grand Canyon Trust have filed a 60-day notice of intent to sue the U.S. Bureau of Land Management over alleged violations of endangered species legislation in approving Denison's "Arizona 1" mine, near the northern boundary of the Grand Canyon National Park.

The Canadian company is not being sued.

The groups argue that the U.S. agency has applied outdated regulations and ignored new scientific data in permitting Denison's mine, which is located within a 400,000-hectare buffer zone declared off-limits to new mining operations in a July order issued by the U.S. Department of the Interior, which oversees the land bureau.

Denison's mine is exempt from the order because it received initial vetting decades ago. But the Sierra Club and its allies argue the land bureau has followed an "illegal course" of approvals and must now revisit a 1988 environmental assessment because the southwestern willow flycatcher and the four types of fish — all native to the Colorado River that cuts through the canyon — have since been added to the U.S. endangered species list or had new critical habitat identified in the region.

"The Grand Canyon and its endangered species deserve complete protection from the uranium industry," said Taylor McKinnon, the Center for Biological Diversity's public lands advocate. "And relying on outdated and incomplete reviews falls far short of that standard."

Roger Clark, the Grand Canyon Trust's air and energy campaigner, said "experience has shown that uranium development can permanently poison land and water in this arid region."

The groups also argue that new hydrology studies, increased traffic hazards due to a uranium-mining boom and other factors should have been considered before giving Denison the final OK to start its operation.

Hochstein said the idea that Arizona 1 threatens the Grand Canyon ecosystem can't be justified "by any stretch of the imagination" because the mine site is a safe distance from the park.

"This mine was originally permitted in the late '80s. This is not a case of a new mine," he said. "All we really needed to move forward from the position we were in was an air-quality permit, which we received last week from the State of Arizona."

He added: "As far as Denison is concerned, we have all the permits necessary to put this mine into operation."

Hochstein said all of the site preparation — including the digging of shafts and placing of equipment underground — was completed years ago and is now being readied for operation.

"This is a mine that was very close to being put into production, but uranium prices collapsed and as a result the mine wasn't fully developed and put into operation," he said. "Once we got the permit, we mobilized people from our local office — to do shaft inspections, start the vent fans operating — so that we're ready to go underground as soon as we can. The infrastructure is all in place. We are essentially ready to go."

In the lawsuit papers filed this week, the environmental groups quote U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's effusive remarks about the Grand Canyon and the potential threats posed by uranium mining when he announced the moratorium on new mines in July.

"I am calling a two-year 'time-out' from all new mining claims in the Arizona Strip near the Grand Canyon because we have a responsibility to ensure we are developing our nation's resources in a way that protects local communities, treasured landscapes and our watersheds," Salazar said at the time.

The announcement described the Grand Canyon as a "home to numerous rare, endemic and specially protected plant and animal species" and noted that "the Colorado River and its tributaries flow through the watersheds" of the park to supply water to several major U.S. cities, including Tucson, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and San Diego.

The threatened fish species identified in the planned lawsuit are the razorback sucker, Colorado pikeminnow, humpback chub and bonytail chub.

Salazar's announcement also emphasized that the lands encompassed in the moratorium "contain significant environmental and cultural resources" — including numerous archeological sites — "as well as substantial uranium deposits."

He stipulated, however, that the new measures would not "prohibit ongoing or future mining exploration or extraction operations on valid pre-existing claims."

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