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Localities stake their ground in Supreme Court uranium review / August 29, 2018

The Supreme Court has set Nov. 5 as the day it will hear oral arguments in Virginia Mining Inc. v. Warren, the battle over whether to lift Virginia’s ban on uranium mining.

State Sen. Frank Ruff, an opponent of overturning the ban, appeared before Clarksville Town Council on Tuesday, Aug. 21 to urge the town to join a “friend of the court” brief in support of the State of Virginia’s position.

The Commonwealth has banned uranium mining since 1982, shortly after uranium deposits were discovered in Pittsylvania County near Chatham. The high court is being asked to decide if the Atomic Energy Act, which gives the federal government regulatory authority over nuclear power generation, preempts the state’s right to regulate mining and milling operations.

The ore site known as Coles Hill is said to be the largest uranium deposit in the country and one of the largest in the world with an estimated value of $5 billion-$6 billion.

The lead petitioner in the case is Virginia Uranium Inc., a Canadian-owned company operating in Pittsylvania County and owner of Coles Hill. They claim the state’s ban on mining is prohibited by the 1954 Atomic Energy Act.

Virginia officials counter that the Atomic Energy Act doesn’t regulate uranium mining on private or non-federal lands.

Already lined up against Virginia in the Supreme Court review are the Trump Administration, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, lobbyists for nuclear power plant operators, 14 former senior nuclear regulators for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and a nationwide nuclear power trade association.

Also submitting a brief in support of Virginia Uranium’s position are three Republican U.S. Senators, Ted Cruz of Texas, Tom Cotton of Arkansas and James Inhofe of Oklahoma.

Two lower courts previously upheld Virginia’s moratorium, most recently in the form of a 2-1 decision by a panel of the Richmond-based Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. The court explained that, because conventional uranium mining outside of federal lands is beyond the regulatory influence of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, it is not an “activity” as defined in the Atomic Energy Act, leaving in place the ability of each state to regulate the mining and milling operations.

Speaking in Clarksville Tuesday night, Ruff tried to put a positive spin on the battle saying, for financial reasons, no one knows if or when VUI will commence with mining operations should the company prevail in front of the Supreme Court. The cost of mining uranium far exceeds the money it will bring to the company, Ruff said.

Currently uranium is selling for $26.3 per pound, but the mining costs are estimated at $40-$45 per pound.

The market price for domestically-produced uranium could change if, as it has signaled it will do, the Trump Administration imposes tariffs on imported yellowcake from countries such as Australia, Canada and Kazakhstan.

Signaling their ongoing opposition to uranium mining, earlier this month the Pittsylvania County Planning Commission unanimously rejected a rezoning request by Virginia Uranium President Walter Coles to move a portion of his land into an agricultural zone, where uranium mining is allowed with a special use permit.

Following the planners’ recommendation, the Pittsylvania County Board of Supervisors last week denied Coles’ rezoning request.

Agreeing with Ruff, Town Council voted to sign onto the amicus curae brief that will be submitted to the Supreme Court as part of its review of the lawsuit.

Other governmental entities and organizations joining with Clarksville against the ban are the Danville Pittsylvania County Chamber, the Danville Industrial Development Authority, the Danville Regional Foundation, Hargrave Military Academy, Chatham Hall, the Halifax County Chamber of Commerce, the Halifax Tourism Authority, Halifax County Board of Supervisors, the Halifax IDA, the Town of South Boston, the Town of Halifax as well as the six state senators and delegates from Southside Virginia, including Del. Tommy Wright and Ruff, each of whom represent Mecklenburg County.

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