The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld an Obama-era ban on new uranium mining around Grand Canyon National Park, but the Trump administration could still lift it.
The 2012 Northern Arizona Mineral Withdrawal bans new mining claims on about one million acres of public lands surrounding the national park for 20 years.
Then Interior Secretary Ken Salazar ordered the moratorium, citing pollution risks to watersheds that drain into the canyon. Uranium mines with valid existing rights before the ban are allowed to continue.
The National Mining Association and the American Exploration and Mining Association sued to overturn the mining ban on new claims. But the ban was upheld by the U.S. District Court in Arizona in 2014, then again by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in 2017.
In October, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the mining industry’s challenge to the 20-year ban, leaving intact the Court of Appeals ruling upholding it.
The courts ruled the protected area followed federal environmental laws and was not too large, as mining companies had argued. The Havasupai Tribe, Grand Canyon Trust, Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity and National Parks Conservation Association defended the ban in court.
They feared that without the ban, the Interior Department predicted hundreds of exploration sites could be dug and 26 new mines developed, potentially threatening the Grand Canyon and groundwater.
“Today’s decision slams the door on false claims that the 2012 ban on new uranium mines around the Grand Canyon was illegal,” said Roger Clark, Grand Canyon program director, in a press release. “By deciding not to hear the mining industry’s appeal of our hard-won decision, the Supreme Court has sided with Arizona voters in both political parties, the Havasupai Tribe, hunters and anglers, local governments and businesses, outdoor recreationists, and millions of visitors who visit the Grand Canyon every year.”
But the ban on uranium mining surrounding Grand Canyon National Park is still in limbo. The Trump administration could still lift the ban administratively. Uranium has been listed as a critical mineral, so access to it could be enhanced for reasons of national security, and the Department of Commerce is weighing an industry petition for uranium quotas, which could make uranium deposits around the Grand Canyon more difficult to resist.
The National Mining Association argues the ban on new uranium claims in the Grand Canyon are based on “overly cautious” speculative environmental risks.
The U.S. Geological Survey is leading a 15-year study that seeks to establish whether the 1 million-acre area surrounding the national park needs protection from new uranium mining claims, according to the Associated Press. U.S. scientists studying the effects of uranium mining around the Grand Canyon say they are lacking information on whether the radioactive element is hurting plants, animals and a water source for more than 30 million people.
But the study may not be completed because it is not funded in President Donald Trump’s 2019 budget proposal.