A Virginia circuit court judge has upheld the state’s 38-year-old moratorium on uranium mining, rejecting Virginia Uranium Inc.’s (VUI) argument that the ban was an unconstitutional violation of the company’s rights regarding its Coles Hill property. On July 27, Judge Chadwick Dotson ruled in the state’s favor, declaring that while the mining prohibition does amount to a taking or damaging of private property within the meaning of the state constitution, Virginia had a compelling interest to do so.
Coles Hill, located in Pittsylvania County, is said to contain the largest natural deposit of uranium in the United States and one of the largest such deposits in the world. VUI controls its mineral rights, surface rights, and leasehold development and operating rights. The company was formed in 2007 by Walter Coles and associates. Coles is part owner of the eponymous property.
The ruling: “Even the highest rights cannot be used in a vacuum; we are not solitary creatures,” Dotson wrote in his opinion. “Our actions impact those around us, and sometimes those actions must be hemmed in so as to protect otherwise. Plaintiffs ask this court to declare [the ban] unconstitutional and therefore substitute this court’s judgment for that of the legislature. Clearly, their 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.”
Mark R. Herring, Virginia’s attorney general, added: “Today’s ruling once again affirms that Virginia is well within its right to regulate mining activities in the Commonwealth, and I’m pleased we were able to yet again successfully defend Virginia’s environment and uranium mining moratorium in court.”
Background: In 1982, Virginia imposed a moratorium on the issuance of permits for uranium mining as a temporary measure to allow time for the Virginia Coal and Energy Commission to determine whether uranium mining could be done safely. The commission submitted its report to the Virginia General Assembly in 1985, recommending, by a vote of 12–8, that uranium mining be allowed, but adding the caveat that the state should develop a robust regulatory framework. Opposition in the General Assembly has continued since then, however, and the moratorium has remained in place.
In June 2019, the Virginia mining ban was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in a separate case brought by VUI. In that case, VUI claimed that under the U.S. Constitution’s supremacy clause, the Atomic Energy Act preempts uranium mining laws like Virginia’s and establishes the Nuclear Regulatory Commission as the lone regulator in the field. The court concluded that “both the District Court and the Fourth Circuit rejected the company’s argument, finding that while the AEA affords the NRC considerable authority over the nuclear fuel life cycle, it offers no hint that Congress sought to strip states of their traditional power to regulate mining on private lands within their borders.”