Former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar did not abuse his discretion or violate any laws in prohibiting new hard-rock mining claims on one million acres near the Grand Canyon, a federal judge ruled Tuesday.
Salazar announced the 20-year ban in 2012 for an area rich in high-grade uranium reserves outside Grand Canyon National Park. Mining industry groups and a Chino Valley resident quickly sued, saying the ban was irresponsible public policy and violated federal laws.
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U.S. District Judge David Campbell ruled in favor of the federal government and conservationists, who argued that it will protect water flowing through the canyon from potential contamination. Campbell said he could find no legal principle that prevents the Interior Department from withdrawing 5,000 acres or more from new mining claims for up to 20 years without approval of Congress, even if he was erring on the side of caution in "protecting a national treasure."
Representatives of industry groups said they are reviewing the decision. The plaintiffs have 60 days to appeal.
One of the plaintiffs, Gregory Yount of Chino Valley, said he is baffled by Campbell's decision. He said the Interior Department vastly overstated the potential risk of effects from mining on the area's water resources and to American Indian tribes.
"These deposits are deep underground, they cause very minimal surface disturbance, and they are easily reclaimed," he said. "If you look at some of the reclaimed sites, you can barely tell that anything is there."
The Interior Department declined comment, citing pending litigation. Attorneys for the agency had argued in court that the decision was based not only on protecting water resources, but air quality, wildlife and places that American Indians consider sacred and that the impacts were not negligible.
Conservationists applauded Campbell's ruling. Katherine Davis of the Center for Biological Diversity said the Grand Canyon is unparalleled in offering visitors a chance to explore and understand the area's culture, and "we have to protect that."
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.