The order came after a day-long hearing in a case brought by three conservation groups - Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, and Grand Canyon Trust - to challenge drilling taking place close to the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River with no public hearing and no environmental review.
"This order stops uranium exploration on the banks of a national treasure," said Taylor McKinnon of the Center for Biological Diversity. "The Forest Service had allowed drilling to begin while the case was pending, so the order comes as a major relief. We're elated."
In December, the Kaibab National Forest approved exploratory uranium drilling by VANE Minerals at up to 39 locations across seven project sites just south of the Grand Canyon.
The approval was granted using a "categorical exclusion," the least rigorous public and environmental review available to the agency under the National Environmental Policy Act.
In March, environmental groups sued the Forest Service, demanding that a more complete analysis be conducted.
The suit focuses on the Forest Service's failure to fully consider the controversy and cumulative impacts attending all uranium exploration slated for the area. It cites National Environmental Policy Act, Appeals Reform Act, and Administrative Procedures Act violations.
"The Grand Canyon is too important for the Forest Service to give short shrift to the possible and significant negative impacts of uranium mining exploration," said Sandy Bahr, conservation outreach director for the Sierra Club's Grand Canyon Chapter.
"The Forest Service should take a hard look at the impacts and the public should have an opportunity to review and comment on this mining exploration," Bahr said. "We are pleased that the judge recognized the importance of protecting the Canyon and the possible significant impacts this exploration could have."
The Forest Service claims it has little power to deny uranium development under the 1872 Mining Law. But the groups argue that the mining law does not go against the agency's separate obligation under the National Environmental Policy Act to carry out in-depth public and environmental reviews of such proposals.
Thousands of new uranium claims have been staked on public lands surrounding Grand Canyon in recent years. VANE's project is the first of five major exploration projects slated for the area.
Vane Minerals had already begun to drill while the court case was pending. (Photo courtesy Vane Minerals)
The Forest Service has also been in discussions with Denison Corporation about opening of the Canyon uranium mine in the same area.
"The judge's decision reinforces our belief that the current uranium boom poses the most significant threat that Grand Canyon has faced in many years," said Richard Mayol, communications director of Grand Canyon Trust. "Grand Canyon just isn't the place for new uranium development."
While the suit was pending, the Forest Service and VANE Minerals began uranium exploration drilling at three project sites. That drilling is now on hold.
On February 5, the Coconino County Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a resolution opposing uranium development on lands in the proximity of the Grand Canyon National Park and its watersheds.
The resolution requests the Arizona Congressional Delegation to initiate the permanent withdrawal from mining, mineral exploration, and mineral entry all federal lands in the Tusayan Ranger District of the Kaibab National Forest and the lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management in House Rock Valley.
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