EPA Loses Bid To Regulate Uranium Mining Near Tribal Lands

Open Pit Uranium Mine, Wyoming

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit has rejected the EPA’s claim that it has primary permitting authority over uranium mining on property near Tribal lands, limiting the federal government’s reach over this controversial mining in major uranium producing states – many of which are also home to Tribal communities.

The Court’s June 16, 2010 ruling in Hydro Resources, Inc. (HRI) v. EPA, et al., sides with industry arguments that the site of a particular uranium mine in New Mexico is not located on Tribal land because it falls outside the Navajo Nation’s boundaries. The EPA had argued for a broader standard which would allow it to regulate uranium mining anywhere that is considered “Indian Country” under federal law, even if the property was outside the defined boundaries of a Reservation. A result of the Court’s decision is that regulation of such mines will be left to state law, which is not consistent from state to state.

In its published opinion, the Court noted: “EPA argued . . . that we should cast our gaze beyond the particular land in question. In the Agency’s view, because some sufficiently significant (though unspecified) percentage of neighboring lands -- what EPA calls ‘the community of reference’ -- is Indian country, HRI’s land must be considered Indian country, too.” The Court stated that the EPA’s analysis presupposes “that every piece of land is part of some community of reference,” but the Court rejected that argument.

The ruling is particularly significant because it was issued by the court which oversees Oklahoma, Wyoming, Kansas, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico, all of which are important energy and mineral-producing states and which also have large regions of Tribal lands.