Water is life. Will the Supreme Court disagree?

Court will decide if uranium can be mined in rainy Virginia

By Linda Pentz Gunter

Virginia Uranium, the Canadian company that wants to extract uranium from a deposit in Pittsylvania County, Virginia, has tried for years to argue its case on merit. And failed. That’s because there are no environmental, health or, at present, even economic arguments to support lifting the Commonwealth’s moratorium on uranium mining.

But corporations eager to plunder and profit do not readily throw in the towel. Instead, the company has taken its case to the US Supreme Court where it will argue the issue from a legal perspective.

Virginia Uranium has the support in this venture of the lapdog federal regulator, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), which never fails to be on side with its corporate masters. (Technically the NRC answers to Congress, not the nuclear industry, but the agency annually assesses and collects fees from the industry totaling about 90 percent of its annual budget authority.)

The specifics of the Supreme Court case will debate who actually has the jurisdiction to decide whether the Virginia Uranium project can go forward. The federal government will make the case that it falls under the terms of the Atomic Energy Act. This would give the NRC the power to oversee all matters related to radiation risks posed by the mine — the core of the state’s reasoning in opposing it.

The state will argue that the Coles Hill site is on privately owned land. This would mean the mine site falls outside the jurisdiction of the AEA which is aimed at regulating mines on federal land.

A broad spectrum of people within the targeted community and beyond have long opposed the planned uranium mine. In this 2011 short film by the Southern Environment Law Center and Piedmont Environmental Council, the people of the region describe just how much would be destroyed should the Coles Hill uranium mine be permitted to go ahead.

“Some things are greater than the money worth. You’ve got to have a place to stay,” says seventh generation Danville farmer, Byron Motley, in the film. Motley lives just two miles from the proposed uranium mine site and sells his hay to local cattle farmers. “My heart and soul and my family’s blood is in this land right here,” he said. “This is home.”

Fortunately, both Virginia Governor, Ralph Northam, and Attorney General, Mark R. Herring, both Democrats, continue to steadfastly oppose uranium mining in their state. This enlightenment is thanks to years of consistent and thorough campaigning by the Keep The Ban coalition and others and also a report by the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). These efforts sewed enough doubt in the minds of legislators that a bill introduced to the Virginia legislature in January 2013 to lift the moratorium was so strongly opposed that its sponsors withdrew it.

Commissioned in 2009, the NAS report was published in December 2011. Given that it was funded in part by Virginia Uranium and uranium-friendly Virginia Tech, there was a considerable amount of breath-holding among mine opponents at the rollout. It certainly wasn’t a given that the study would return a strong enough verdict to keep the ban. But it did.

The study brief was to describe “the scientific, technical, environmental, human health and safety, and regulatory aspects of uranium mining and processing as they relate to the Commonwealth of Virginia, with the ultimate objective of providing independent, expert advice to help inform decisions about uranium mining and processing in Virginia.”

The committee that conducted the study allowed for public comment and input at all but one of its meetings, which gave activists and experts a chance to convey what they knew.


Map showing proposed location of Coles Hill uranium mine in Virginia

The authors observed in their report the many evident shortcomings across a range of fronts, including potential health and environmental effects. But their strongest reservations rested on the inexperience of the Commonwealth of Virginia and the NRC in safely and effectively managing such a complex enterprise fraught with so many unknowns.

“Because the Commonwealth of Virginia enacted a moratorium on uranium mining in 1982, the state has essentially no experience regulating uranium mining and there is no existing regulatory infrastructure specifically for uranium mining,” the study said.

“The U.S. federal government has only limited recent experience regulating conventional uranium processing and reclamation of uranium mining and processing facilities,” they wrote. “Because almost all uranium mining and processing to date has taken place in parts of the United States that have a negative water balance, federal agencies have limited experience applying laws and regulations in positive water balance situations.”

The NAS study also considered the many challenges should the moratorium be lifted, writing “there are steep hurdles to be surmounted before mining and/or processing could be established within a regulatory environment that is appropriately protective of the health and safety of workers, the public, and the environment.”

But most tellingly, the study pointed out that “There is no federal law that specifically applies to uranium mining on non-federally owned lands; state laws and regulations have jurisdiction over these mining activities.” Let’s hope the Supreme Court justices agree.

For more information, see Uranium Mining — A Risky Experiment, by the Southern Environmental Law Center.

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