Federal judge takes up challenge to ban on filing of new mining claims near Grand Canyon

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 will be presented 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. Salazar announced the 20-year prohibition in 2012 that covers more than 1 million acres rich in high-grade uranium reserves.

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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.

Democratic 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, arguing that Salazar was eliminating hundreds of jobs and depriving the country 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 will consider 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.

"There is no evidence even by the environmental analysis that was performed by the agencies that in-situ mining proposes any significant threat to the integrity of the park land," said Luke Popovich, a spokesman for the National Mining Association. "The park boundaries were set for this specific purpose of protecting the environmental values inside the park."

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.

"The record does not support the plaintiffs' zero-impact myth," the agency said in court documents.

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.