In December, the Kaibab National Forest granted British firm Vane Minerals approval to conduct exploratory uranium drilling on national forest lands along the park's southern boundary with no public hearing and no environmental review. It is the first of five such projects slated for the area.
"Grand Canyon simply isn't the place for uranium development," said Taylor McKinnon of the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the plaintiff groups. "Our national treasures deserve better than the calamity of an adjacent industrial zone."
Filed by the Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, and Grand Canyon Trust, the lawsuit claims that the U.S. Forest Service violated the National Environmental Policy Act and two other laws when it approved the uranium exploration using a "categorical exclusion," the least rigorous analysis available to the agency.
Vane Minerals has already begun to drill for uranium near the Grand Canyon in northern Arizona. (Photo courtesy Vane Minerals)
The lawsuit claims that the Forest Service failed to consider the controversy surrounding uranium development, the significance of its proximity to the Grand Canyon, the overall cumulative impacts of four other future uranium exploration projects and the potential opening of Denison Corporation's Canyon Mine - all located in the same area.
The lawsuit follows a letter sent by the same three groups outlining legal problems with the approval and requesting that the Forest Service withdraw its decision.
The Forest Service claims it has little power to deny uranium development under the 1872 Mining Law. But 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.
"The Grand Canyon is facing a massive uranium build-up at its southern boundary," said Sandy Bahr of Sierra Club's Grand Canyon Chapter. "The mining law doesn't negate the Forest Service's duty to conduct detailed environmental and public reviews for new uranium development - and the Grand Canyon deserves at least that much."
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.
Arizona Senator John McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, has made no direct statement about uranium exploration at the Grand Canyon, but he has called for greater emphasis on nuclear energy in the United States along with increased production of domestic oil and continued development of alternative energy sources.
Congressman Raśl Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat who chairs the House Subcommittee of National Parks, Forests and Public Lands, told the "Tucson Citizen" newspaper in February that he has asked committee staff to explore how best to eradicate the provision for use of categorical exclusions. In the meantime, he asked, "If they find a vein of uranium to explore, how do we stop it?"
Grand Canyon National Park is one of the world's great natural wonders whose protection for future generations has long been a priority for the citizens of Coconino County, the resolution says.
The Grand Canyon National Park also is an economic engine that now draws five million visitors per year who contribute to the economy of Coconino County, it says.
More than 2,000 uranium mining claims have been filed since 2003 in the Tusayan Ranger district alone, the majority of them within 10 miles of Grand Canyon National Park, says the Board of Supervisors.
Fueled by a 15-fold increase in uranium prices during the last eight years, planned uranium development has increased on federal lands immediately south of the Grand Canyon, where in addition to the 2,000 claims, there are five uranium exploration projects, and the possible opening of one mine.
"Some places should be off-limits to noise, heavy equipment traffic, drilling, and potential contamination from uranium exploration and drilling; the rim of the Grand Canyon is one of those places," said Dave Gowdey of the Grand Canyon Trust. "Congress should act now to protect the park and its surrounding public lands."
Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2008. All rights reserved.