Grand Canyon Uranium Mining Withdrawal Upheld

Grand Canyon

Prescott, Arizona

On September 30, 2014, the federal district court in Arizona granted summary judgment in favor of the former Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar. The court ruled that the Secretary’s withdrawal of 1,006,545 acres surrounding Grand Canyon National Park from uranium mining in 2012 was in compliance with the law. The Plaintiffs (several mining associations, multiple counties, a private individual, and the Arizona Utah Local Economic Coalition) claimed that the withdrawal violated the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA).

NEPA directs government agencies to prepare Environmental Impact Statements (EISs) analyzing environmental effects any time there is a project proposal or action impacting federal public lands. As part of this process, agencies gather, develop, and carefully consider information and studies concerning potential impacts. The BLM prepared a draft EIS to determine the effects of uranium mining on the Grand Canyon, which was then opened up for public comment. When that process was completed, the Department of the Interior issued a Record of Decision (ROD) formally withdrawing the lands from mining for 20 years.

Plaintiffs argued that the BLM could not withdraw the land because there was a lot of uncertainty regarding the impacts of uranium mining on the Grand Canyon. The size of the proposed withdrawal area and its location as remote forest and rural land meant that relatively little data was available for the EIS analysis. They also argued, and the BLM agreed, that uranium mining presented a low risk of significant environmental harm.

Despite these uncertainties, the district court upheld the withdrawal. It ruled that Secretary Salazar did not abuse his discretion by proceeding cautiously and withdrawing the 1 million acres surrounding the Grand Canyon. The court explained that Department of the Interior could exercise caution “when faced with uncertainty due to a lack of definitive information, and a low risk of significant environmental harm.” The lands will be closed to any new uranium mining claims for 20 years. Current mines may still operate because they are grandfathered into the withdrawal as “preexisting rights.”

The district court’s decision is currently on appeal to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.