The United States Supreme Court upheld Virginia’s ban on uranium mining in a decision released Monday morning.
The court heard the case on Virginia’s power to ban uranium mining on Nov. 5 in Washington, D.C.
The lead petitioner in the case, Virginia Uranium Inc., is based in Pittsylvania County, and owns Coles Hill, which is the largest uranium deposit in the United States.
Virginia has a moratorium on uranium mining due to public health concerns with the potential effects of uranium mining on the employees and surrounding community. The moratorium was enacted in 1982.
Between the two deposits, initial estimates predicted there could be 119 million pounds of uranium ore embedded in granite beneath the surface — the largest known domestic uranium deposit.
The petitioner argued the state doesn't have authority to enforce the ban, stating that the Virginia ban was preempted by the federal Atomic Energy Act, which gives the federal government the regulation over nuclear power generation. Uranium is an element used in atomic bombs.
The high court ruled the state law barring uranium mining was not trumped by the federal Atomic Energy Act.
Proponents of the mining moratorium argued the potential environmental hazards create a public safety risk, adding that mining could damage the perception of Pittsylvania County and hamper economic development.
A wide range of groups like the Southern Environmental Law Center, Roanoke River Basin Association and the Danville-Pittsylvania Chamber of Commerce had most recently cited their support for the moratorium in friend-of-the-court briefs submitted to the Supreme Court.
In its brief, Virginia stated that Congress has the ability to take away the state’s ability to regulate conventional mining, but as the law stands that power remains with states. By default, the moratorium on mining is within the state’s right.
The commonwealth argued that the petitioners were unable to prove that the radiological concerns cited during the enactment of the moratorium were “solely” directed toward tailing and not mining.
The central question of the case was whether Virginia’s long-standing moratorium is preempted by the Atomic Energy Act, which is a federal law passed during the Cold War.
That act created the Nuclear Regulatory Commission — a federal body tasked with regulating
nuclear materials and power plants.
Though the language of the moratorium and Atomic Energy Act aren’t in conflict explicitly, the petitioners — Virginia Uranium, Inc.; Cole Hill, LLC; Bowen Minerals, LLC; and Virginia Energy Resources, Inc. — believed they could prove the legislators’ motive behind the state’s ban nullifies it.
It’s that moratorium that VUI and its attorneys sought to overturn. Their argument, rejected at various levels of federal courts in the Richmond-based Fourth Circuit since the suit was initially filed in 2015, was that the Virginia moratorium violates the federal Atomic Energy Act of 1954 (an amendment of the 1946 act) and the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
According to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Atomic Energy Act, passed at the height of the Cold War, is “the fundamental U.S. law on both the civilian and military uses of nuclear materials.” According to the NRC, it serves as the legal foundation for the development, regulation and disposal of nuclear materials and facilities in the U.S.
The basis of VUI’s lawsuit was a legal theory that “development, regulation and disposal of nuclear materials and facilities” includes mining, processing and enrichment of uranium deposits.
This story will be updated.