Arizona Counties Sue Feds over Mining Restrictions

Published June 5, 2012

Mohave County, Arizona is suing the federal government over new restrictions on mining operations that will place one million acres of uranium-rich lands off limits. Several Arizona counties have followed Mohave County’s lead, announcing they are joining the suit.

Procedural Maneuvering Questioned

Mohave County officials are partnering with mining company Quaterra Alaska, Inc, in suing the federal government over the Obama administration’s decision to block mining operations on public land north of the Grand Canyon. Washington, Garfield, Kane, and San Juan counties have joined the suit, which alleges the government improperly and illegally shut the land for mining.

The Federal Land Policy and Management Act allows the Secretary of the Interior to bypass Congress and withdraw 5,000-plus acres of land from development for various environmental reasons for a period up to 20 years. But the Interior Department must follow proper procedures and provide sound environmental reasons for withdrawing such lands. The counties allege Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar failed to do that.

The counties cite environmental impact studies showing mining in the region would not harm the Colorado River and area lands. 

Damage to Regional Economy

“This Department of the Interior action has a hugely negative impact on our economic development efforts, environmental interests, and statutory functions,” said Mohave County Supervisor Buster Johnson. 

Johnson cited reports indicating mining operations could create 1,078 jobs in the county over a 40-year time period. Mining operations could also bring in $2 billion in state and federal corporate income taxes, $168 million in state severance taxes, and $9.5 million in company payments to local governments.

“Salazar does not have the authority to do these things,” Johnson said. “This kind of taking of land, power, and oversight from states, counties, and legal investors can only be accomplished through an act of Congress. But the Obama administration can get away with it as long as no one challenges them.”

More Restrictions to Come?

Fellow Mohave County board member Gary Watson says the area contains unparalleled uranium ore deposits that are too valuable to lock away. He fears the new restrictions are merely the beginning of more extensive, permanent restrictions. 

“There has been a great deal of [mining] interest in that area,” Watson observed. “To close down that area— the richest deposit of ore in the continental United States—is just ridiculous. But there’s a movement for a national monument over that area: The Grand Canyon Watershed. Right now it’s a protective order for 20 years. But a monument, that would put it off limits forever.”

Cheryl Chumley, [email protected], writes from northern Virginia.