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Suit filed to block uranium-mine from opening near Grand Canyon

A trio of environmental groups has followed through on a threat to sue the Bureau of Land Management for giving a green light to a uranium-mine north of the Grand Canyon.

The bureau approved operations for the Arizona 1 mine under an environmental assessment conducted in the 1980s. But the groups that filed the suit on Nov. 16 claimed environmental standards have since become more stringent and a new review should be required.

“This lawsuit seeks the BLM’s compliance with mining laws, the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act, all of which it is running afoul of by not taking new environmental reviews,” said Taylor McKinnon of the Center for Biological Diversity in Flagstaff.

The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Phoenix by the center, the Grand Canyon Chapter of the Sierra Club and the Grand Canyon Trust.

The groups contend mining activity could contaminate springs that feed into the Grand Canyon and end up jeopardizing native wildlife species. In September, they notified BLM of their intent to sue if the agency did not require a new environmental review.

Sandy Bahr, director of the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter, said the area near the Grand Canyon was too important environmentally to “rely on outdated environmental data.”

The mine is owned by Denison Mines Corp. of Toronto. It was partly built in the 1ate 1980s and early 1990s, but never actively mined. As the price of uranium has risen, however, mining companies have showed renewed interest in uranium deposits on federal land surrounding Grand Canyon National Park.

Right now, there are no active uranium mines in the area.

BLM and Denison officials have said the uranium deposits in Arizona 1 are hundreds of feet above the aquifer that might feed the springs. BLM spokeswoman Deborah Stevens told the Arizona Capitol Times in September that the 1980s environmental assessment still stood.

But Stevens said Nov. 16 she had no immediate information on the suit and would not comment.

In July, U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar ordered the withdrawal of about 1 million acres of federal land near the Grand Canyon from new uranium claims, pending the outcome of a two-year environmental review. The order exempted existing claims tied to “valid existing rights,” where ore worth mining has been all but assured.

The environmental groups behind the lawsuit said a valid right has not been established for Arizona 1. Denison officials have disputed that.

“We don’t feel that there are issues with regards to the rights to that mine,” Denison President and CEO Ron Hochstein said Nov. 16.

Despite the suit, he said, the company is moving forward with mine production on Arizona 1.

“We have all the permits in place necessary to move forward,” he said. “We anticipate ore production in the first quarter of 2010.”

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