The Southern Environmental Law Center on Dec. 2 celebrated the fact that the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia had that day tossed out a Virginia Uranium Inc. lawsuit challenging the legality of Virginia’s 33-year-old statutory ban on uranium mining.
The decision affirmed the state’s authority to regulate uranium mining and ruled that the federal Atomic Energy Act (AEA) does not preempt the state in regulating conventional uranium mining on private lands.
“The Court correctly dismissed VUI’s tortured attempt to extend the Atomic Energy Act beyond its proper bounds and upheld Virginia’s authority to regulate uranium mining as it sees fit,” said Will Cleveland, Staff Attorney at Southern Environmental Law Center. “This is not only a win for the Commonwealth, but also for the people, environment, and local economies in Virginia that would be threatened by uranium mining.”
“We are pleased that the court struck down the latest uranium industry attack on Southern Virginia communities,” said Tiffany Haworth, Executive Director of Danville River Basin Association. “This is a win for our local rivers and streams, communities, and economy.”
Located just to the northeast of Chatham, Virginia, the Coles Hill estate, where this mining would take place, has for generations been farmland. Beneath these fields lies a deposit of approximately 119 million pounds of uranium ore—the largest natural deposit of uranium in the United States and one of the largest in the world.
Co-plaintiffs Coles Hill LLC and Bowen Minerals LLC own the land above the Coles Hill uranium deposit. They lease the mineral estate to Virginia Uranium, which is owned by another plaintiff, Virginia Energy Resources Inc. The lease is to last until 2045.
The Dec. 2 court decision noted that although Virginia’s Department of Mines, Minerals, and Energy has permitted Virginia Uranium “to engage in ‘exploration activity’” to learn “the nature and extent of the Coles Hills deposit,” state law prevents any Virginia agency from accepting Virginia Uranium’s application for a permit to mine it.
On Aug. 5, 2015, the plaintiffs filed suit for declaratory and injunctive relief against Virginia’s governor, Secretary of Commerce and Trade, Secretary of Natural Resources, and various officials affiliated with the Department of Environmental Quality or the Department of Mines, Minerals, and Energy. They sought a declaration that the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 preempts the state ban on uranium mining. They also sought an injunction, forbidding defendants from adhering to the state law and requiring them, instead, to process permit applications for uranium mining. Defendants had moved to dismiss, contending that the AEA does not preempt the state law. Several defendants asserted Eleventh-Amendment immunity as an alternate ground for dismissal.
The Dec. 2 ruling from Judge Jackson L. Kiser said that the governor, the two cabinet secretaries, and the DEQ officials are insufficiently connected to the state law’s implementation and, accordingly, are immune from suit. He granted their motion to dismiss. He also ruled the AEA does not preempt the state law.