Judge upholds Virginia's uranium mining ban

04 August 2020

Virginia's 38-year-old moratorium on uranium mining will continue following a district court ruling in a case challenging its constitutionality. Virginia Uranium Inc first brought the state suit in 2015 in its effort to mine what it claims is the largest known uranium deposit in the USA.

An aerial view of Coles Hill (Image: Virginia Uranium)

In a 6-9 July hearing at the Wise County and City of Norton Circuit Court, Virginia Uranium Inc claimed the moratorium unconstitutionally took the company's private property, had no compelling governmental interest and, by being overly expansive, took more of its property than was necessary.

However, in his opinion published on 30 July, Judge Chadwick Dotson upheld the moratorium on the grounds that while the ban does deprive its owners of property rights, the state has a compelling interest to do so. "Absent the mining moratorium, the mineral estate is estimated to be worth at least USD427 million, whereas with the mining moratorium, the mineral estate is worth exponentially less," he said.

However, he added: "There really can be no argument that a moratorium on uranium mining, which is an inherently dangerous activity with potentially dangerous interdict effects, achieves the Commonwealth's rightful duty to protect the public from injury and to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the citizenry.

"There is substantial and justifiable fear of irreparable harm if uranium mining were to be allowed in this Commonwealth. Clearly [the plaintiffs'] property rights have been harmed, but the greater harm would be against the people. The common law supports it. Common sense supports it. To find otherwise would be untenable."

In 2017 the US Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit rejected Virginia Uranium Inc's argument that the US Atomic Energy Act (AEA) gives the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) exclusive power to regulate uranium milling and tailings-management activities and therefore pre-empts state uranium mining laws like Virginia's. The company, which wants to mine uranium from a site near Coles Hill, then petitioned the Supreme Court to consider the ruling. The federal government also filed a brief urging the Supreme Court to take up the case. The Supreme Court argued the case in November 2018 and in June 2019 announced it affirmed the earlier court decision.

The Coles Hill uranium deposit in Pittsylvania County was first discovered in 1978, and 2008 NI 43-101 figures showed it to contain measured resources of 3260 tU and indicated resources of 42,800 tU. Its owner, Virginia Energy Inc, describes it as the largest undeveloped uranium deposit in the USA. Virginia Energy's ownership in Coles Hill is held through its subsidiary, Virginia Uranium, headed by the Coles family in whose ancestral land the deposit lies.

Virginia is home to four operating reactors at two nuclear power plants, numerous nuclear companies and government nuclear-related facilities, but has had a moratorium on uranium mining since 1982.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News