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Opponents challenge court ruling that let Arizona uranium mine reopen

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WASHINGTON – Opponents of northern Arizona uranium mining have gone back to court to challenge a federal district judge’s ruling that allowed the Arizona 1 Mine to resume operations late last year.

The appeal from several conservation and Native American groups said the government let the mine reopen without first requiring new plans or reviews, which they said shut out public participation and ignored changes in technology, science and the environment over the past 20 years.

“We know a lot more about the impacts of uranium mining,” which is why mining activities need to be looked at again before mines are reopened, said Sandy Bahr, spokeswoman for the Grand Canyon Chapter of the Sierra Club.

The appeal, filed Monday in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, addresses only the Arizona 1 Mine but it could affect several other existing – but currently not operating – mines in the area, including the Pinenut Mine set to open by mid–2012.

All of the mines are in the Arizona Strip, a region surrounding the Grand Canyon. The Department of the Interior in October recommended banning new hard–rock and uranium mine permits for the next 20 years on 1 million acres in the Strip, but it grandfathered in previously approved mines.

The Arizona 1 Mine, operated by Canada–based Denison Mines Corp., stopped operations in 1992 but reopened in December 2010.

Taylor McKinnon, public lands campaign director for the Center for Biological Diversity, said existing mines are an environmental threat, even if they are closed. He pointed to the Kanab North Mine, one of the shuttered mines in the Arizona Strip that could be affected by the court case.

“It’s been sitting there blowing uranium dust into the desert for 20 years,” McKinnon said of Kanab North.

The center is one of the plaintiffs in the suit, which was filed against the Bureau of Land Management last year for its decision to let mining resume at Arizona 1. But the U.S. District Court for Arizona rejected all five of the plaintiffs’ claims in the original suit, with its final ruling in the case being handed down in October.

The Bureau of Land Management declined Tuesday to comment because the litigation is pending. Calls to Denison Mines’ office in Colorado were not immediately returned.

But Mohave County Supervisor Buster Johnson said that any action to close Arizona 1 – which he said is the only operating uranium mine in the region –would cost jobs and hurt the local economy.

Johnson is also co–chair of the Arizona–Utah Local Economic Coalition, which supports mining in the region. He said that if the plant closes, it would likely never reopen.

He said he also worries that losing the mine could lead to the closure of the nation’s only current uranium processing plant, in Blanding, Utah.

While the suit is filed against the Bureau of Land Management, and Denison has joined as a defendant, Johnson said he believes the coalition will also step up to support the BLM and mining company if need be, although he was careful to note that he does not speak for the whole coalition.

For Johnson, the suit has less to do with the environment concerns than with procedural challenges.

“It had nothing to do with environmental issues, it had to do with BLM procedures,” Johnson said.