Allowing uranium mining next door to the Grand Canyon would be "one of the seven blunders of the world." So says the editorial gang at the Arizona Republic in Phoenix. Yet -- and this should come as no surprise -- with uranium prices soaring in recent years, there are mining companies chomping at the bit to drill in the area.
More than 2,000 claims have been filed (PDF) on the Tusayan Ranger District which borders the South Rim of the canyon -- and the U.S. Forest Service appears all too willing to please.Fortunately, last week a U.S. District Court judge in Phoenix agreed with the Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity, and the Grand Canyon Trust when she issued a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction to block VANE Minerals Group from its Forest Service-approved plans to drill. The agency gave the mining company the go-ahead [doc] in December 2007 to conduct exploratory drilling at up to 39 sites, one of which is just two miles from the park.
We have general concerns about drilling for radioactive material so close to such a magnificent place as the Grand Canyon. For instance, as the Sierra Club's Arizona Chapter Director Sandy Bahr explains it, the company proposes to store radioactive drilling residue adjacent to each drilling site in either a storage pond or contained tank. Storage ponds will be netted to keep larger wildlife out, but may not prevent exposure to species capable of penetrating the net or consuming contaminated vegetation. That's just one kind of potential harm we see.
We also have complaints about the process used by the Forest Service in approving the mining project. The Forest Service approved the drilling using what's called a "categorical exclusion," which happens to be the least rigorous analysis they could use under the National Environmental Policy Act. Categorical exclusions presume that an activity will have no effect on the environment -- without undertaking detailed public and environmental reviews. We beg to differ.
Finally, the Forest Service gave the public only one opportunity to comment on the drilling proposal, and then denied any other chances to review or comment on an analysis of the proposal's effects or to look at alternatives. The public was also denied the ability to administratively appeal the Forest Service's decision to proceed with the drilling -- and, frankly, that's why we had to take the matter to court. We're asking that
the approval to drill be overturned and that the Forest Service prepare an environmental assessment or impact statement.
The judge apparently believes we'll prevail after a full hearing. That would force the Forest Service to do a full environmental assessment of the uranium mining proposal. Stay tuned.
Image credit: Sierra Club, Grand Canyon View