Grand Canyon uranium mining ban upheld as supreme court declines to hear challenge
Court says extraction ban is among cases it refuses to review, in victory for environmental groups and Native American communities
Joanna Walters in New York
Three generations of Havasupai members demonstrate against uranium extraction outside the Grand Canyon mine site. Photograph: Courtesy of the Grand Canyon Trust.
The ban on new uranium mining near the Grand Canyon implemented by the Obama administration was effectively upheld on Monday when the US supreme court declined to hear a challenge from the industry.
Environmental groups and Native American communities declared victory when, on the first day of its fall season, the bench announced that the uranium extraction ban was among cases it refuses to review.
An appeals court decision from December 2017 that the ban is legal will now stay in place. Hundreds of mineral deposit claims from Canadian, British and US interests that want to seek out and exploit uranium deposits close to Grand Canyon National Park now remain on hold.
Under Barack Obama, the interior department announced in 2012 a 20-year ban on fresh mining activity, which protects a million acres of public land in the vicinity of the canyon. The ban, also known as a mineral withdrawal, has faced a series of legal challenges from commercial interests.
But Muriel Coochwytewa, chairwoman of the small Havasupai tribe that lives within the canyon and relies on a local river, which forms famous turquoise waterfalls, said: “The mineral withdrawal is a necessary way to protect the land and the water that our people and our village depend upon.”
She added: “We are grateful that the supreme court has agreed … that our lands and our people must be preserved.”
The mining industry and a coalition of Republicans in Arizona and Utah had hoped for court support to tear down the Obama order. They lost their challenge in the ninth circuit court of appeals in San Francisco in December 2017. The National Mining Association (NMA) and the American Exploration and Mining Association (AEMA) has argued that uranium exploitation is not a risk to the canyon, and asked the supreme court to overturn the ban – an effort that failed on Monday.
“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,” said Roger Clark, a program director at the Grand Canyon Trust advocacy group in Arizona.
Environmentalists fear that apart from the eyesore and trucking of toxic materials associated with uranium mining, it also poses an unacceptable risk of contaminating water sources, including the Colorado river that runs through the Grand Canyon, supplying millions of people, and tributaries that support wildlife, vegetation and local Native American tribes including the Hualapai and Havasupai.
There is also anxiety that the Trump administration could try to reverse the ban via an executive policy decision.
Meanwhile, concerns remain about a uranium mining operation that is planned to be revived five miles from the rim of the canyon, which predates the ban and sits on public land above the groundwater that ultimately supplies the Havasupai’s village in the canyon. Protesters plan to gather there this Thursday.