Five conservation groups had sued to halt the leasing program, charging the DOE with failing both to adequately protect the environment and to analyze the full impacts of renewed uranium mining on public lands.
The Colorado Environmental Coalition, Information Network for Responsible Mining, Rocky Mountain Wild, Center for Biological Diversity and Sheep Mountain Alliance sued the DOE (and Bureau of Land Management) in July 2008 for approving the program without having analyzed the full environmental impacts from individual uranium-mining leases spread over 20,000 acres, and for failing to ensure protection of threatened and endangered species prior to authorizing the program.
The DOE declined to conduct a full Environmental Impact Statement analysis in 2008, instead issuing a Finding of No Significant Impact, which was also struck down as part of the court ruling.
“We are pleased that Judge Martinez agreed with the groups, as well as local governments, who have been requesting the federal government take responsible steps to disclose the full range of impacts of mining uranium on public lands in combination with the impacts from Energy Fuels’ proposed uranium mill,” said Hilary White, executive director of the Sheep Mountain Alliance.
The 53-page ruling invalidates the DOE’s approval of the program; suspends each of the program’s 31 existing leases; enjoins the DOE from issuing any new leases; and enjoins any further exploration, drilling or mining activity at all 43 mines approved under the leasing program, pending satisfactory completion of new environmental reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act.
“This is a huge victory for public lands, rivers and wildlife in southwestern Colorado and a major setback for the uranium industry’s efforts to industrialize and pollute the Colorado Plateau,” said Taylor McKinnon, public-lands campaigns director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The Department of Energy has thumbed its nose at environmental laws for too long; today’s ruling is a big course correction.”
Uranium mining and milling resulting from the lease program would, the plaintiffs contended, deplete Colorado River basin water and threaten to pollute rivers with uranium, selenium, ammonia, arsenic, molybdenum, aluminum, barium, copper, iron, lead, manganese, vanadium and zinc. Selenium and arsenic contamination in the Colorado River basin from abandoned uranium-mining operations has been implicated in the decline of four endangered Colorado River fish species.
“Even small amounts of some of these pollutants, like selenium, can poison fish, accumulate in the food chain and cause deformities and reproductive problems for endangered fish, ducks, river otters and eagles,” said Josh Pollock of Rocky Mountain Wild. “It is irresponsible for the Department of Energy to put fish and wildlife at risk by allowing uranium leases without adequate analysis of necessary protections to prevent pollution.”
“This is an important ruling that will help ensure that any uranium mining and milling that may take place in the Dolores River watershed is protective of the environment and human health,” said White. “We look forward to the Environmental Protection Agency’s leadership in disclosing the full impacts of uranium activity in this important watershed.”
Plaintiffs were represented by attorneys Travis Stills of the Energy Minerals Law Center, Jeff Parsons of the Western Mining Action Project and Amy Atwood of the Center for Biological Diversity.