Uranium company sues to end Virginia mining ban

Virginia's ban on uranium mining is violating the rights of a prominent local company, a new lawsuit claims. 

Virginia Uranium Inc., a Chatham-based company that has fought a lengthy and expensive fight to mine one of the largest uranium deposits in the country, filed suit in state court last week seeking either to force the state to issue a mining permit for its Coles Hill property or pay compensation for what the suit claims is a "taking of plaintiffs' property."

This is the second lawsuit the company has filed in recent months. The first, filed in federal district court in August against the commonwealth, asked the court to "declare Virginia’s 33-year-old ban on the development of uranium mining regulations in the Commonwealth null and void, based on the Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution."

"Federal law exclusively governs radiological safety concerns related to uranium milling and tailings management, which are expressly allowed under a highly restrictive regulatory program," Virginia Uranium said in a press release. 

According to Virginia Uranium, the state's uranium mining ban bars it "even from taking the basic step of applying for a mining permit."

"This is a clear, unconstitutional taking of Plaintiffs’ private property," the company said in its statement.

The state lawsuit, filed in Wise County circuit court, seeks one of two methods of relief.  "Under the Virginia Constitution, the Plaintiffs are entitled to an order invalidating the ban on uranium mining or, at a minimum, an award of just compensation for the full value of their mineral reserve.”

When asked why the company had decided to pursue legal action, Virginia Uranium spokeswoman Julie Rautio told AMI Newswire its efforts to reach a political solution had been exhausted.

"Three days after [Governor] McAuliffe was elected, he promised to veto any legislation to allow uranium mining," Rautio said. "And that was on the heels of a General Assembly session where [Senator John] Watkins' bill could not even get a hearing."

The battle over the Coles Hill uranium project in Pittsylvania County reached its peak during the 2013 General Assembly session, when Watkins, then a Republican state senator from Powhatan County, introduced a bill to allow the state's Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy to issue permits for uranium ore mining. Watkins withdrew his bill from consideration when it became clear it would not be reported out of committee.

Watkins took to the Senate floor, where he issued a stinging rebuke to opponents. "The failure to lift this ban," Watkins said, "is a definite stigma and blot on our reputation as a pro-business, pro-energy, pro-property rights state. It says to the business community here and around the country that Virginia may not be as open for business as we claim it is."

An economic study of the Coles Hill site projected that as much as $6 billion of ore could be mined from the site over its lifetime.

Virginia Uranium spent handsomely trying to convince legislators to lift the uranium mining ban. The company gave more than $368,000 in campaign contributions to Democrats and Republicans between 2008 and 2013, according to the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project. The company also supplied more than $148,000 worth of gifts and entertainment to legislators and executive branch officials.

Despite this, Virginia Uranium was unable to overcome opposition from both delegates and state senators representing the region in the General Assembly. Facing a well-organized campaign by environmental activists in Virginia and North Carolina, the administration of Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell also refused to take a stand on lifting the state's uranium mining ban and ultimately took no action on the matter.

The uranium ban has been in place since 1982, when uranium mining companies began exploring for, and identifying, sites likely to support commercial uranium mining. The companies pushed for the state to issue permits but their efforts failed, resulting instead in a uranium mining ban.

Under the language of the statute establishing the ban, state agencies were not allowed to accept uranium mining applications prior to July 1, 1984, "and until a program for permitting uranium mining is established by statute."

Even if the lawsuits succeed, Virginia Uranium noted in its statement it "would still be required to meet significant federal, state and local regulatory milestones before beginning mining operations at Coles Hill."