Last October, Martinez halted the DOE’s 42-square-mile Uranium Leasing Program for declining to conduct a full Environmental Impact Statement analysis in 2008. The 53-page ruling suspended each of the program’s 31 existing leases as well as stopped the DOE from issuing new leases to explore, drill and mine within the area of the program, which includes 43 mines, until new environmental reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act and Endangered Species Act are completed.
More recently, the DOE’s Office of Legacy Management filed a motion to reconsider the judge’s decision arguing that the injunction is not warranted and “constitutes manifest legal error” as well as arguing that the DOE has conducted further steps in completing an EIS for the program. The DOE asked the court, in the motion, to at least modify the injunction to allow activities necessary to complete an EIS.
On Feb. 27, Martinez ruled that the motion for reconsideration would be granted in part and denied in part. Martinez agreed to amend the injunction to allow the DOE or other governmental agencies to conduct activities on Uranium Lease Program lands that are absolutely necessary including conducting an environmental analysis that fully complies with the National Environmental Policy Act and Endangered Species Act.
The injunction is also modified to allow the federal agency to remediate dangers to public health, safety and environment caused by major storms as well as allowing the maintenance of access roads and safe access to existing mine monitoring facilities.
Martinez denied all other aspects of the DOE’s motion to reconsider.
“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.”
Environmental groups believe the uranium mining and milling resulting from the lease program will deplete Colorado River basin water and threaten to pollute rivers with a long list of hard metals. 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 and may be impeding their recovery.
“The Department of Energy now has an opportunity to take the time to restart the process for conducting a thorough and complete PEIS and providing a full disclosure of the cumulative impacts of uranium mining and milling on the Colorado Plateau,” said Jennifer Thurston, director of the Information Network for Responsible Mining. “We went to court seeking a genuine analysis because we fully understand the legacy of past uranium busts and what harm has been done to communities and the environment. We rely on the DOE and other agencies to fully review a resurgent uranium industry before we keep plowing ahead.”
After receiving information at several public scoping meetings last August and September, the DOE has started the process of preparing a Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement to analyze the environmental impacts of its Uranium Leasing Program. As to how this ruling affects that process is unclear. Efforts to reach a DOE Office of Legacy Management Official for comment on Martinez’s decision were unsuccessful by press time.
The DOE failed to conduct a sufficient environmental impact statement analysis in 2008, instead issuing a “finding of no significant impact,” which was also struck down as part of the October ruling.
While the Piñon Ridge Uranium Mill, which is set to be built in the Paradox Valley on private land, is not a part of the Uranium Leasing Program, it would most likely be used to process any significant amounts of uranium ore mined in that area. Even though the ruling halts exploration and mining on those 31 federal leases, Energy Fuels officials have maintained that the decision has no effect on its plans to move forward on the mill.
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