Groups Challenge Uranium Exploration Near Grand Canyon - EPA, Forest Service Sued!
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By Kathy Helms – March 15, ‘08
FLAGSTAFF – The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Forest Service were slapped with lawsuits on Wednesday and Thursday March 12th and 13th over the lack of financial assurance required to clean up hazardous wastes, including mine wastes, and the permitting of new uranium exploration near Grand Canyon National Park.
The Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, and Grand Canyon Trust filed suit Thursday against the Forest Service and Tysayan District Ranger Richard Stahn challenging the approval of up to 39 new uranium drilling sites by VANE Minerals within a few miles of the Grand Canyon. There are more than 2,100 mining claims for uranium in the Tusayan district alone.
The suit comes one day after Earthjustice attorneys sued EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson and Department of Transportation Secretary Mary Peters on behalf of Sierra Club, New Mexico's Amigos Bravos, Nevada's Great Basin Resource Watch, and Idaho Conservation League.
The groups claim EPA and DOT failed to comply with CERCLA, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, also known as Superfund.
“As you know, Congress passed Superfund in 1980 to ensure cleanup of the Nation's many hazardous waste sites and to make sure that the companies responsible actually perform the cleanup,” attorney Lisa Evans said via telephone press conference.
“To ensure that the industry would do its part, Congress specifically required EPA to write regulations that require high-risk industries to demonstrate financial responsibility. Congress gave EPA five years to do this and it's now been 27 years, so we are asserting that it's long past time for EPA to abide by this mandate, and today we are filing our complaint to ask the court to require EPA to write critically important regulations addressing financial assurance.”
Wendy Chavez of EPA's Region 9 press office referred calls to Roxanne Smith in Washington, who was out of the office until Monday. Chavez said, however, that “with this lawsuit just being filed, and without sufficient time to review it, they wouldn't be able to comment on it.”
The lawsuit to protect the Grand Canyon stems from the Forest Service's Dec. 20, 2007, decision to grant British firm VANE Minerals approval to conduct exploratory uranium drilling on national forest lands along the park’s southern boundary. It is the first of five such projects slated for the area.
The suit claims that the Forest Service violated the National Environmental Policy Act, Administrative Procedures Act, and Appeals Reform Act when it approved the uranium exploration using a “categorical exclusion,” the least rigorous analysis available to the agency.
The Forest Service had not returned calls by press time, however, Clark Arnold of VANE Minerals U.S., in Tucson, said, “The reason the Forest Service is willing to grant a categorical exclusion is because the disturbance is extremely minor. There is very little damage, remediation is extremely effective. It takes a couple weeks, we're gone, and the site is clean.
“There are a number of safeguards in place to ensure that proper procedures are followed. We do post a financial bond with the Forest Service. Our activities are closely monitored.”
The company has been exploring for uranium on the Colorado Plateau, drilling on state and private land for almost a year in northern Arizona and southern Utah, Arnold said. “We have had no problems with the authorities involved, we've had no problems with land owners. We have very good relations with everyone that we've been dealing with as far as I know.
“What we are doing is we're drilling a hole in the ground which is exactly analogous to drilling a water well. If you came on the site while the work was in progress, you could not tell that it was not going to be a water well. When the hole is completed, we lower a probe into the hole to test for the presence of uranium and then the hole is filled and abandoned and the site is reclaimed.”
The groups filing suit say the analysis failed to consider the controversy attending uranium development, the significance of its proximity to the Grand Canyon, and the overall cumulative impacts of four other future uranium exploration projects and the potential opening of Denison Corp.’s Canyon Mine — all located in the same area.
Arnold said the nearest site is located about 3 miles from the park boundary. Ron Hochstein of Denison was out of the office until Monday.“Grand Canyon simply isn’t the place for uranium development,” said Taylor McKinnon of the Center for Biological Diversity. “Our national treasures deserve better than the calamity of an adjacent industrial zone.”
The Forest Service claims it has little power to deny uranium development under the 1872 Mining Law. But the mining law doesn’t go against the agency’s separate obligation under NEPA to carry out in- depth public and environmental reviews of such proposals, the suit contends.
“Some places should be off-limits to noise, heavy equipment traffic, drilling, and potential contamination from uranium exploration and drilling; the rim of the Grand Canyon is one of those places,” said Dave Gowdey from Grand Canyon Trust. “Congress should act now to protect the park and its surrounding public lands.”
During a Senate committee hearing Wednesday on hardrock mining, Tony Ferguson, director of Minerals & Geology Management for the U.S. Forest Service testified that analyses of its 1995 data indicated there are 27,000 to 39,000 abandoned mines of all types on Forest Service lands, of which 18,000 to 26,000 are abandoned hardrock mines.
“Currently no single source of funding alone can completely reclaim all impacted sites to applicable standards,” he said.
The Government Accountability Office said the Forest Service does not have readily available information on the financial assurances in place for hardrock operations on its lands. Although Forest Service regulations do not require financial assurances for all operations, the Forest Service's policy is to require them.
EPA administers the Superfund program, established under CERCLA, to address the threats that contaminated waste sites pose to human health and the environment. The act also requires that the parties statutorily responsible for pollution bear the cost of cleaning up contaminated sites, including abandoned hardrock mining operations.
GAO said some contaminated hardrock mine sites have been listed on Superfund’s National Priorities List — a list of seriously contaminated sites which are expensive to clean up, with the cleanup taking many years. EPA’s Office of Inspector General said in 2004 that 63 hardrock mining sites were on the National Priorities List and another 93 sites had the potential to be added to the list.
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