Court fight over Grand Canyon uranium mining proceeds

2011 FILE PHOTO - House subcommittee hearing on a bill that would open one million acres near the Grand Canyon National Park to new uranium mines. Uranium mining continues to be a controversial topic for law-makers.

2011 FILE PHOTO - House subcommittee hearing on a bill that would open one million acres near the Grand Canyon National Park to new uranium mines. Uranium mining continues to be a controversial topic for law-makers.

FLAGSTAFF (AP) - Mining industry groups say a ban on the filing of new hard rock mining claims near the Grand Canyon is irresponsible public policy, but the federal government and conservationists say it will protect water flowing through the canyon from potential contamination.

Those arguments were heard Tuesday before U.S. District Judge David Campbell in Phoenix in a case that stemmed from one of the most high-profile decisions of former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's tenure. Campbell didn't issue an immediate ruling.

Salazar announced the 20-year prohibition in 2012 that covers more than 1 million acres rich in high-grade uranium reserves outside Grand Canyon National Park.

Mining industry groups quickly sued to have the ban overturned. They were handed a partial defeat in the consolidated case last year when the court upheld the authority of the Interior secretary to withdraw 5,000 acres or more but not for longer than 20 years without congressional approval.

Mohave County Board of Supervisors has unanimously supported uranium mining, Supervisor Buster Johnson told the Daily Miner.

The board approved a cooperative agreement in 2012 between counties in northwestern Arizona and southwestern Utah to ensure public lands remain open to multiple uses, including uranium exploration and mining.

"We have submitted resolutions to Washington, D.C., and I have gone back and testified in support of the mining," Johnson said. "If this safe, environmentally friendly mining is allowed, it will be the biggest economic driver that northern Arizona and southern Utah has seen in decades."

Johnson said he's thankful that Quaterra Resources filed to fight the ban and allowed Mohave County to join their lawsuit.

"I am glad that the new owner of the mining claims have continued the fight," he said. "The big scam is that there is no mining proposed anywhere near the Grand Canyon and none of us on the mining site would ever support it."

Democratic Party lawmakers had worked for years to limit mining near the Grand Canyon, one of the nation's most popular tourist destinations. Congressional Republicans and industry groups opposed those efforts, contending that Salazar was eliminating hundreds of jobs and depriving the nation of a critically important energy source.

The area surrounding Grand Canyon National Park contains as much as 40 percent of the nation's known uranium resources, worth tens of billions of dollars. The actual mining of uranium in the area has slowed recently because of a steep drop in prices.

Campbell took under advisement motions for summary judgment from both sides hoping to put an end to the case. Whatever the decision, it is almost certain to be appealed.

The mining industry groups that include the American Exploration and Mining Association, the Nuclear Energy Institute and the National Mining Association contend the Interior Department vastly overstated the potential risk of effects from mining on the area's water resources.

The Interior Department said its decision was based not only on protecting water resources but air quality, wildlife and places that American Indians consider sacred. The agency said the plaintiffs' arguments that mining is harmless to the environment fall flat.

Officials from the Hualapai Tribe declined to comment.

Mining is not completely off-limits under the ban. Anyone who had a claim staked before the ban went into effect and who can prove a sufficient quality and quantity of uranium could develop a mine.

Officials expect fewer than a dozen mines to be developed among the thousands of existing claims.

(Daily Miner reporter Hubble Ray Smith contributed to this story.)