The American mining industry is asking a federal appeals court to overturn a ban on new uranium mining claims near the Grand Canyon in a legal battle with environmentalists over impacts on the premier U.S. park.
In 2012, the Obama administration set aside for 20 years new mining claims and limited development on existing claims on roughly 1 million acres (404,686 hectares) of public lands in northern Arizona adjacent to the Grand Canyon.
Then-U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar imposed the ban over concerns that large-scale development of uranium mines could threaten groundwater supplies, Native American cultural resources and scenic vistas in and around a park that draws millions of visitors.
The U.S. mining industry unsuccessfully challenged the ban, which had been sought as early as 2008 by Arizona's then Governor Janet Napolitano and local governments concerned about damage to the region's tourist economy.
Miners argued that the Interior secretary did not have the authority to prohibit mining on vast swaths surrounding the Grand Canyon and that the agency failed to adequately assess the economic hardship to the industry if it were prevented from developing legally obtained claims to mine uranium.
U.S. District Judge David Campbell found in a decision last month that the Interior secretary was indeed vested with the authority to protect the acreage, and was empowered under federal law "to err on the side of caution in protecting a national treasure – Grand Canyon national park."
Environmental groups like the Sierra Club and an Indian tribe whose reservation borders the Grand Canyon vowed on Wednesday to fight the National Mining Association and the American Exploration and Mining Association in their appeal of Campbell's ruling filed late on Tuesday with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Ted Zukoski, attorney for environmental law firm Earthjustice, which represents conservation groups and the Havasupai Tribe in their defense of the ban, said large-scale uranium mining would pollute and industrialize a region prized for such features as old-growth ponderosa pine forests and which contains ancestral homelands of several Indian tribes in addition to imperiled wildlife like condors.
National Mining Association spokesman Luke Popovich dismissed those claims, calling the ban "an irresponsible action by the secretary of the Interior in view of the absence of any significant showing of environmental harm that could possibly have come from a mining activity in this vicinity."
(Reporting by Laura Zuckerman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Sandra Maler)