Federal Judge Deals Win for 'Life-Giving Waters' Near Grand Canyon

"Storm breaking up on the afternoon of September 9, 2014." (NPS photo of Grand Canyon National Park by M. Quinn via flickr)

Federal Judge Deals Win for 'Life-Giving Waters' Near Grand Canyon

20-year ban on uranium mining in one million-acre area upheld

A decision issued by a federal judge Tuesday is being cheered by conservation groups for protecting "life-giving waters" and the people and wildlife that depend on them from toxic uranium mining.

U.S. District Judge David G. Campbell's ruling (pdf) upholds a 20-year ban on over one million acres of federal land surrounding the Grand Canyon National Park.

In 2012, following environmental assessments and public comment, then-Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar withdrew the million-acre area outside the World Heritage Site from mining, calling it "the right approach for this priceless American landscape." It stopped new mining, but did not affect previously approved mining.

Salazar's action, however, sparked immediate challenges by industry groups. In the case before Judge Campbell, the plaintiffs charged that Salazar's action was wrong, as it came after inadequate consultation with local and state governments and because it was based on a Federal Environmental Impact Statement that made "unsupported and overly cautious assumptions."

Among the plaintiffs is the Nuclear Energy Institute, whose concerns, according to the group's website, include that the ban that "deprives claimants of the value of their investments."

As the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research explains on its website, "Uranium is the principal fuel for nuclear reactors and the main raw material for nuclear weapons." It adds that uranium

[m]ining and milling operations in the U.S. have disproportionately affected indigenous populations around the globe. [...] Many Native Americans have died of lung cancers linked to their work in uranium mines. Others continue to suffer the effects of land and water contamination due to seepage and spills from tailings piles.

The defendants, which include the Havasupai Tribe, environmental group Earthjustice and the Grand Canyon Trust, charged that the mining would deplete precious water resources while endangering human and environmental health with potentially dangerous uranium levels.

Ruling against the plaintiffs, Campbell found: "The Court cannot conclude that [the Interior's] decision to proceed cautiously was legally inappropriate."

The Interior did not violate the law in erring on the side of caution over possible severe consequences of groundwater contamination, Campbell found.

From the decision:

The Court can find no legal principle that prevents DOI [Department of the Interior] from acting in the face of uncertainty. Nor can the Court conclude that the Secretary abused his discretion or acted arbitrarily, capriciously, or in violation of law when he chose to err on the side of caution in protecting a national treasure - Grand Canyon National Park.

Havasupai Chairman Rex Tilousi said that the ruling "recognizes the unique and important resources on the lands south of Grand Canyon that are our aboriginal homelands and within the watershed that feeds our springs and flows into our canyon home."

Celebrating the environmental win, Earthjustice staff attorney Ted Zukoski said, "The lands surrounding 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. That is why it was critical to defend these lands from this self-serving attack by the uranium industry," Zukoski continued.

The plaintiffs have 60 days to appeal the ruling.

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