The U.S. Supreme Court won't review an Obama-era action that put land around the Grand Canyon off-limits to new mining claims, ending the legal battle as environmentalists keep a close eye on actions by the Trump administration that they fear could lead to more access for the mining industry.
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The Obama administration put about 1,562 square miles (4,045 square kilometers) outside the boundaries of the national park off-limits to new hard rock mining claims until 2032. The 20-year ban was meant to slow a flurry of mining claims over concern that the Colorado River — a major water source serving 30 million people — could become contaminated and to allow for scientific studies.
The mining industry asked the Supreme Court in March to review the ban, saying it was based on an unconstitutional provision of federal law. The high court on Monday declined the request, leaving the ban in place.
"Clearly, we're disappointed," said Ashley Burke, a spokeswoman for the National Mining Association. "There continues to be great risk to our domestic supply chain thanks to unwarranted withdrawals like this."
Burke said the association will continue advocating for land access. The American Exploration and Mining Association also challenged the ban.
Environmentalists hailed the court's decision but are worried the ban could be undone administratively.
The U.S. Department of Commerce is investigating the link between U.S. national security and uranium imports at the request of two uranium mining companies, Energy Fuels Resources Inc. and UR-Energy Inc. The companies have asked the government to impose a quota on imports that would preserve one-quarter of the U.S. market for domestic uranium and for a "Buy America" policy for government agencies that use uranium. The public comment period ended last week.
A separate report to President Donald Trump and others on critical minerals is due in November. Uranium recently was added to the list.
"We're very relieved and happy to see the Supreme Court decision, but it's a multi-faceted issue," said Amber Reimondo, energy program director for the Flagstaff-based environmental group, the Grand Canyon Trust. "Until we know that the Grand Canyon isn't being considered as a result of any Commerce decisions, then we'll be alert."
Much of the land in the withdrawal area is north of the Grand Canyon and has some of the richest deposits of uranium ore in the U.S. Republicans in Congress, and some counties in Arizona and Utah said cutting off access eliminates hundreds of jobs in a remote area and puts the nation's security at risk.
No one is mining uranium in the withdrawal area now but Energy Fuels is waiting for uranium prices to rise to restart a mine about six miles (10 kilometers) from the canyon's South Rim in the national forest. The ban didn't affect the roughly 3,000 mining claims that existed before it went into effect, which federal officials say could result in less than a dozen mines if the companies that own them can prove a sufficient quality and quantity of the mineral resource.
Scientists have said they have not had the money needed to fully study the impact of uranium mining on water resources.