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Mine operators win Grand Canyon uranium fight

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. -- Conservationists and tribes challenging a uranium mine north of the Grand Canyon were rejected by a federal appeals court Monday, but their argument over mining plans that are decades old is expected to resurface as companies look to resume similar operations.

Environmentalists and Native American groups had sued the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, saying the agency relied on an out of date and inadequate environmental analysis in allowing the Arizona 1 Mine to operate.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, however, rejected arguments that a gravel permit and a revised reclamation bond were major federal actions that would trigger new environmental reviews.

The court also ruled that a temporary closure did not make the mine's 1988 operation plan invalid.

Previous mining operations outside the park ceased about 20 years ago as uranium prices plummeted. The Arizona 1 mine was the first to resume in late 2009. It produces 300 tons of uranium ore daily.

The mine began operating before the Interior Department approved a 20-year ban on new hard rock mining claims on more than 1 million acres near the Grand Canyon, an area known to be rich in high-grade uranium ore.

About 3,000 mining claims already staked in the area aren't affected, although federal officials expect fewer than a dozen mines to be developed under those claims. Anyone holding those claims would have to prove they have sufficient quantity and quality of uranium ore, for example, before any mining could occur.

Energy Fuels Inc. acquired the Arizona 1 and other mine sites last year from Denison Mines Corp. It has already proven claims for the Canyon Mine located on the Kaibab National Forest south of the Grand Canyon and about six miles from Tusayan, and forest officials said the mine's 1986 operation plan needs no further revisions.

Roger Clark of the Grand Canyon Trust, one of the groups that sued the BLM, said requiring companies to validate existing claims should constitute a major federal action that could produce a court decision different than the one issued by the three-judge panel Monday in other cases.

``Unfortunately the 1872 mining law permits this on multiple use lands, so that's not likely we're going to stop the mine,'' said Clark, air and energy director for the trust. ``Understanding the threats and reviewing those and putting in measures that would help mitigate and prevent contamination are all, we think, sound judgment, good management.''

Clark said he was unsure whether the group would ask for a rehearing on the case.

The BLM said it was pleased the court affirmed that the agency didn't violate the law. Energy Fuels, which expects to wrap up production at the Arizona 1 Mine later this year, did not respond to requests for comment.

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