Ban on Uranium Mining Upheld in Colorado

A ban on mining uranium near waterways in Colorado was upheld by a federal judge last week, in a victory for environmental and conservationist groups. The ban, which applies to 42 square miles of land owned by the United States Department of Energy near the Dolores and San Miguel rivers in southwest Colorado, was first enacted in 2008 following a lawsuit by the Center for Biological Diversity and four other environmental organizations.

The U.S. Department of Energy allowed the land in Colorado’s Mesa, Montrose and San Miguel counties to be leased for the purpose of uranium mining but, according to the judge, did not properly assess the impact that the practice would have on the land and water quality in the nearby rivers. In October 2011, U.S. District Court Judge William Martinez suspended the 31 active leases on the land, ruling that the U.S. Department of Energy had failed to conduct a thorough evaluation and review the specific impacts that the mining could have to the sites. New drilling and leases were also suspended.

In last week’s ruling, Judge Martinez denied a request by the U.S. Department of Energy to revisit the case and decided to uphold his original ruling from October.

The U.S. Department of Energy is now required to complete an environmental review and report the potential impacts that uranium mining could have on the site, in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act.

Taylor McKinnon, public lands campaigns director for the Center for Biological Diversity, said, “The uranium leasing program threatens two of the West’s loveliest little rivers — these places deserve utmost caution, not bombastic haste.”

Uranium mining puts rivers at risk of being affected by more than a dozen pollutants, including uranium, manganese, ammonia, aluminum, barium, copper, iron, lead, zinc and arsenic. A study conducted on the Colorado River basin have shown these harmful pollutants left over from former uranium mining operations – especially selenium and arsenic – have contributed to the decline of populations of four endangered species of fish native to the Colorado River, the Colorado pikeminnow, humpback chub, razorback sucker and bonytail chub.

“This is a welcome ruling from the court because it sends a strong message that the injunction was fully necessary in order to uphold the law and protect the environment,” said Hillary White, executive director of the Sheep Mountain Alliance. “The DOE’s request for the injunction to be lifted was denied because it was improper and premature. They must conduct the full analysis required by law, and we are pleased that the court is signaling so strongly that the law must be obeyed.”

The ban on uranium mining is not only thriving in Colorado – in January of this year, the U.S. Department of the Interior instated a ban on new uranium mining operations near the Grand Canyon. The Obama administration’s decision was based on a desire to protect the landscape of the Grand Canyon, and to preserve water quality in the Colorado River. The ban is effective for 20 years – the longest period of time allowed by law – and covers one million acres of waterways and federal land. It passed despite protests from mining supporters who argued that mining operations create needed jobs. This is the third time that the government has passed a uranium mining ban on the Grand Canyon, which provides drinking water to millions of Americans. Uranium mining is currently allowed at four sites near the Grand Canyon, but if the ban was not in place, there could be as many as 20 mining operations near the landmark, with several operating at the same time.

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