US Supreme Court mostly in favour of Virginia's uranium mining ban

The US Supreme Court seems inclined to support a Virginia law that bans mining at the nation’s largest known uranium deposit due to public health and economic reasons, as it begins to hear a challenge to the prohibition brought forward by the owners of the property, with support from the Trump administration.

On Monday, the justices considered whether Virginia’s moratorium on uranium mining clashes with the US Atomic Energy Act, a 1954 federal law that gives regulators power over nuclear safety. A majority of the justices seemed to think it doesn’t.

Justices from across the court’s ideological divide were reluctant to scrutinize the reasons behind a state measure.

The Act regulates only the second and third phases in uranium mining. The first phase is extracting the raw ore from the ground. The second is separating it from waste rock, or tailings, and concentrating it into so-called yellowcake, which is sold. The third phase is storing the tailings, which are radioactive.

Virginia’s ban deals only with ore extraction, which is beyond the reach of the federal law, and it was imposed based on environmental and economic factors rather than safety concerns linked to radiation, according to the state authorities.

The plaintiffs, Virginia Uranium Inc, a subsidiary of Vancouver, B.C.-based Virginia Energy Resources, Cole Hill LLC and Bowen Minerals LLC, alleged the real motivation beyond the state lawmakers was to address radioactive waste.

Justices from across the court’s ideological divide said they were reluctant to scrutinize the reasons behind a state measure.

Justice Neil M. Gorsuch asked Charles J. Cooper, a lawyer for the owners of the uranium-rich land, what should happen if the state’s purpose in enacting the ban had nothing to do with fear of radiation. “Suppose Virginia had said we think that the extraction is a dangerous activity, so we are justifying this ban on mining to protect the workers from the hazards associated with mining, not with milling or tailing, just mining,” she asked, The New York Times reported.

“I would lose if that was the State of Virginia’s genuine purpose,” Cooper replied.

Supporters of mining the metal said it would bring jobs and tax revenue to an economically struggling region.

The Trump administration’s top Supreme Court lawyer, Solicitor General Noel Francisco, told the justices the key question was whether the state had a “plausible non-safety rationale” for its law.

The property, about 30 miles north of the North Carolina border in Pittsylvania County, holds an estimated 119 million pounds of uranium. The plaintiffs value the deposit at up to $6 billion, according to court documents. Mining it, which has been forbidden in Virginia since 1982, could inject billions of dollars into the local economy, they argue.

Uranium, a main source of fuel for nuclear power plants and material in nuclear warheads, remains a strategic resource for electricity and national defence.

Supporters of mining the metal said it would bring jobs and tax revenue to an economically struggling region, while opponents say the potential harm to drinking water and the environment isn’t worth the financial boost.

The case — Virginia Uranium v. Warren, 16-1275 — could clarify how far states can go in regulating access to uranium resources.

With files from Bloomberg.