Virginia Ban on Uranium Mining Upheld

June 17, 2019 by Dan McCue

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday upheld Virginia’s decades-old ban on mining radioactive uranium, holding “Congress conspicuously chose to leave untouched the States’ historic authority over the regulation of mining activities on private lands within their borders.”

The huge deposit of uranium ore at the center of the case was discovered on private land in Pittsylvania County, Virginia in the early 1980s. Further analysis of the site led to estimates of roughly 119 million pounds of uranium ore being underground at the site.

Court documents from the case place the value of the deposit at about $6 billion.

The owners of the land above the deposit, Coles Hill LLC and Bowen Minerals LLC, have been eager to see the potential mine developed and have been leasing the mineral estate to Virginia Uranium and its parent company, Virginia Energy Resources, to do just that.

In 1985, the Virginia Coal and Energy Commission concluded the benefits of uranium mining greatly outweigh the costs associated with such activity, and that it could be carried out safely under strict guidelines imposed by the state.

Despite these assurances, the Virginia General Assembly kept the moratorium on mining in place.

Virginia Uranium sued in the Western District of Virginia on the grounds that Virginia’s moratorium is federally preempted. When the federal district court decided in favor of the state, the mining company appealed the case to the Fourth Circuit, where it also lost.

On Monday, the Supreme Court agreed with those decisions, ruling 6-3 that a federal law called the Atomic Energy Act does not keep the state from banning uranium mining.

“Virginia Uranium insists that the federal Atomic Energy Act preempts a state law banning uranium mining, but we do not see it,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote for the majority.

As explained in the ruling, the Act gives the federal government oversight over processing the radioactive uranium and storing the radioactive waste that results. However, it is silent on the subject of mining.

In a dissent, Chief Justice John Roberts said this is exactly the point. In his view, the state cannot ban uranium mining based on concerns about hazards connected with later steps. He was joined in dissent by Justices Stephen Breyer and Samuel Alito.

The case is Virginia Uranium v. John Warren, 16-1275.

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