Supreme Court rules that Virginia can block mining of nation’s largest uranium deposit

July 3, 2019

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the federal government and industry groups cannot force Virginia to open the nation’s largest uranium deposit to mining.

The case pitted states rights against the federal government’s authority over the nuclear industry. USA Today reported that in the end, three conservatives and three liberal judges combined in the 6-3 ruling for Virginia, with Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch writing the main opinion. Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justices Stephen Breyer and Samuel Alito dissented.

"Every indication in the law before us suggests that Congress elected to leave mining regulation on private land to the states and grant the (Nuclear Regulatory Commission) regulatory authority only after uranium is removed from the earth," Gorsuch wrote.

Business and industry groups had accused Virginia of succumbing to "not in my backyard" complaints about what they said were unfounded claims of safety risks. Because of that, the Nuclear Energy Institute said, "Virginia has permanently foreclosed the safe development of the largest known uranium deposit in the United States."

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce said that posed a risk "not just to the nation's energy grid and the economy it supports, but to the national security and defense interests that domestic development of nuclear power advances."

But 10 states lined up with Virginia, where members of the state legislature argued that volatility in the uranium mining industry "could leave behind a shuttered mine and a weakened local economy."

The proposed mining would have taken place amid southern Virginia's rolling hills in a county where 60,000 residents rely on agriculture and get their water mostly from wells. The county has 1,300 working farms.

During oral argument in November, Virginia Solicitor General Toby Heytens told the justices that removing up to 119 million pounds of uranium ore would entail "a massive earth-moving mine operation" that would detract from the area's rustic scenery and tourism industry.

But U.S. Solicitor General Noel Francisco warned that letting the state dictate development rules would represent "a road map for undermining a multibillion-dollar industry."

 

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