Ever since geologists discovered a 119-million-pound deposit of uranium ore — worth an estimated $6 billion — beneath Coles Hill Farm near Chatham in Pittsylvania County, a war has been raging over whether to mine it. It’s a war that divided the county 40 years ago and still does, to a degree, today.
The latest battle took place in November before the nine justices of the U.S. Supreme Court, who were hearing arguments in the case of Virginia Uranium v. Warren, in which the company seeking to mine the ore argued Virginia’s 37-year-old mining moratorium is illegal under the U.S. Constitution and federal law. Monday, in a 6-3 ruling, the justices ruled the moratorium is a proper use of state legislative powers and violates no federal laws.
That is where the matter stands, and that is where we believe the fight over the question of whether Virginia should allow uranium mining should end.
It was in the late 1970s when Walter Coles Sr., working with the Canadian mining company Marline Inc., first broached the idea of setting up mining operations in Pittsylvania. Opposition sprang up almost immediately.
In 1981, the General Assembly passed a one-year moratorium on any mining operations while a state study was conducted. A year later, legislators extended the moratorium indefinitely.
Their concerns focused primarily on environmental issues: the effect of mining on the Roanoke River watershed, which supplies water for millions of people in Virginia and North Carolina, the storage of dangerous mining tailings, the effect on groundwater supplies from disturbing the ore and such. Leading the moratorium efforts were conservative, pro-business Democratic legislators from Southside Virginia — not your usual cadre of stereotypical starry-eyed, tree-hugging environmentalists.
The mining controversy moved to the back burner as Southside dealt with other, more pressing issues through the late 1980s and 1990s, mainly the collapse of the textile and furniture industries and the utter transformation of the tobacco economy.
But in 2007, Coles and a newly formed company, Virginia Uranium Inc. (VUI), renewed its efforts to mine the deposit, the largest in the United States and one of the largest in the world. The price of uranium ore at the time was skyrocketing on world markets, valuing the Coles Hill lode at more than $10 billion.
Coles and VUI had a strong economic argument at the time. Danville and Pittsylvania County, indeed all of Southside Virginia, needed jobs and economic activity. Local governments needed revenue. A massive public relations campaign involving letters to the editor to local newspapers, outreach to various community groups and lobbying of local and state politicians was going full steam ahead.
Virginia’s moratorium was challenged on two fronts, in the General Assembly and in the courts. During the administration of former Gov. Bob McDonnell, proponents were successful in efforts to force a state study of rules and regulations that would be implemented in the case the ban was lifted.
But that was as far as they got legislatively. Democrat Terry McAuliffe, McDonnell’s successor, pledged to veto any bill lifting the moratorium, effectively killing repeal efforts in the Assembly.
In the courts, VUI lawyers sought to have the moratorium thrown out for a number of reasons, but they fell short every time. It was only their last, “Hail Mary” argument, though, that gave them the most hope of success.
In 2015, the company’s attorneys mounted an offensive against the ban based on the federal Atomic Energy Act of 1954 and the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
The reasoning, briefly, went like this: The Atomic Energy Act, passed at the height of the Cold War, gives to the federal government the power to oversee the “development, regulation and disposal of nuclear materials and facilities” in the nation. Coupled with the Supremacy Clause, the AEA supersedes any and all state laws. VUI lawyers contended that “development, regulation and disposal of nuclear materials and facilities” includes the mining, processing and enrichment of the ore itself, something not even mentioned in the act.
The company lost at every step of the way in the federal courts of the Fourth Circuit. It was only in early 2018 when the Supreme Court agreed to hear the final appeal that new life was breathed into the repeal efforts. Indeed, the Trump administration sided with VUI in seeking this expansion of federal power over states seeking to protect their environment. Six justices from across the ideological spectrum disagreed, thus ending VUI’s legal battle.
But Coles, speaking with reporter John Crane of the Danville Register & Bee newspaper, has vowed to fight on. The only avenue open now is in the Assembly through repeal of the almost-40-year-old moratorium, something we contend is a quixotic quest. Until scientists can establish a completely safe extraction protocol and definitely address longterm storage of tailings that would be radioactive for 80,000 years, our message is simple: Keep it in the ground.
It’s time to move on. The possibility of uranium mining is in Southside Virginia’s past, not its future.