John Carnemolla/iStockphoto/Thinkstock
Photo credit: John Carnemolla/iStockphoto/Thinkstock

British mining company Vane Minerals has started legal action against the U.S. government over its decision to impose a moratorium on new mining operations for 20 years on more than 1 million acres outside the Grand Canyon.

The company claimed that last year's decision was not based on scientific evidence but on "political rhetoric" and is now seeking at least $77 million in damages at the U.S. Court of Federal Claims in Washington. Vane Minerals estimated that the sum equaled what it would have earned if the ban had not been imposed by the Obama administration.

The company was in the midst of its exploration for uranium south of the Grand Canyon when the decision was made. The radioactive ore in the Canyon is typically contained in perpendicular columns, known as breccia pipes. Mining operators explain that these pipes are separated from the water table but environmentalists and some hydrologists say they are connected to a number of springs that feed the Colorado River. Campaigners have been arguing that radioactive pollution may be reaching the river and the aquifer supplying the town of Tusayan, Ariz.

The documents sent to U.S. Court of Federal Claims by Vane Minerals' lawyers stated that there was scientific evidence that uranium mining of breccia pipe formations within the area could not impact on the Colorado River or its watershed. The mining company also argued that, when it began expensive exploration work, it reasonably expected that previous land designations and restrictions would be respected.

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While it bans new mining operations, the moratorium does not affect mines with previous valid claims. However, since Vane lacks those, it could not proceed with exploration and development. For companies to get approval for mining on federal land, it is not enough to provide ore samples and ore-body estimates that reveal the mine is likely to succeed commercially. Mining permits are granted after federal regulators have reviewed and approved the claims.

By the time the ban came into force, in January 2012, Vane did not have any valid existing rights for any of its mining claims. Roger Clark, program director for the Grand Canyon Trust, commented that Vane had not subjected any of its claims to a validity test, which means that it is effectively seeking damages for something that has never been validated.

The moratorium was a result of an unprecedented coalition of business representatives, civic organization leaders and tribal communities. Various groups also took part, including conservationists, hunting groups, fishermen and ranchers, as well as geologists, hydrologists, water resource managers and wildlife proponents. The city, officials from Coconino county, Arizona state officials and federal elected officials also supported the ban, the Summit County Voice noted.

The uranium industry has been trying to overturn the moratorium by challenging it in Arizona's federal district court but has so far failed in its attempts.