Salazar sued over Grand Canyon uranium decision

28 February 2012

The withdrawal of lands in northern Arizona from mining activities is unconstitutional, unlawful and violates the National Environmental Policy Act, said organisations representing the US mining and nuclear industries in a lawsuit against US Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.

Salazar announcing a temporary withdrawal of the lands in June 2011 (Image: Grand Canyon NPS)

The suit has been filed with the US Federal District Court in Arizona by the National Mining Association (NMA) and the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), the US nuclear energy industry's national policy organisation. The Department of the Interior (DoI), US Bureau of Land Management (BLM), US Forest Service and US Department of Agriculture are named as co-defendants alongside Salazar, in his capacity as Interior Secretary.

In a 28-page long filing, the two plaintiffs claim that the decision announced by Salazar in January to withdraw over 1 million acres (nearly 405,000 hectares) of federal lands in northern Arizona from new mining for the next 20 years is flawed for a number of reasons.

The NEI and NMA argue that Salazar does not have the legal authority to make withdrawals of public lands in excess of 5000 acres, citing a landmark 1983 Supreme Court ruling that such withdrawals would be unconstitutional. Furthermore, they claim, the decision to withdraw the land is "arbitrary, capricious, and not in accordance with law." Finally, the environmental impact statement (EIS) and record of decision on the withdrawal violate the terms of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) in failing to take a "hard look" at the economic and environmental consequences of the withdrawal.

Outdated data

NEI vice president Richard Myers said that the land withdrawal was not justified by information in the DoI's own environmental assessment. "The proposed land withdrawal is designed to protect against situations and circumstances that no longer exist. It is a mistake to judge today's uranium mining activities by practices and standards from 50 to 60 years ago. Yet that, apparently, is what the Interior Department has done in its final environmental impact statement," he said.

According to the NEI, uranium resources in the Arizona Strip are some of the highest-grade ores located in the USA, representing approximately 40% of US reserves and more than seven times current US annual demand. The legal filing asserts that the BLM's economic assessment of the effects of the withdrawal and environmental impact analysis relied on "outdated, inaccurate data and ignored more recent available data," leading to an understatement of the economic consequences for withdrawal and an overstatement of the potential adverse effects of uranium mining. This is not a new criticism: The filing notes that during the public comment stage of the draft EIS comments were lodged criticising the document's focus on historic mining operations from the 1860s and 1950s while failing to consider modern uranium mining techniques and environmental regulations already enshrined in state law.

NMA president and CEO Hal Quinn also pointed to the DoI's failings. "DoI has provided no evidence in the record or in its environmental impact statement that a million-acre land grab is necessary to avoid environmental harm; it has inadequately analysed the economic impact of its actions; and the department has failed to rigorously evaluate the 'no action' alternative required by NEPA," he said.

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News