WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court sided with the state of Virginia on Monday, finding nothing improper about its decades-old ban on mining radioactive uranium.
The owners of a massive deposit of radioactive uranium, the largest known in the United States, challenged that ban, which has prevented them from mining.
They tried from 2008 to 2013 to persuade Virginia lawmakers to reconsider. After that effort failed, they tried a different approach, suing the state in federal court in an attempt to invalidate the ban, which goes back to the 1980s. Lower courts ruled against Virginia Uranium, the owners of the deposit near Coles Hill, in southern Virginia's Pittsylvania County, and the case was dismissed.
The Supreme Court agreed with those decisions, ruling 6-3 that a federal law called the Atomic Energy Act does not keep the state from banning uranium mining.
"Virginia Uranium insists that the federal Atomic Energy Act pre-empts a state law banning uranium mining, but we do not see it. ... Congress conspicuously chose to leave untouched the States' historic authority over the regulation of mining activities on private lands within their borders," Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote.
Turning the uranium in the ground into usable material would involve several steps. First, the uranium ore would have to be mined from the ground. Next, the uranium would then need to be processed at a mill, where pure uranium is separated from waste rock. Then, the waste rock, called "tailings," which remain radioactive, would have to be securely stored.
The debate at the Supreme Court centered on Virginia's ability to regulate the first step in that process: mining. The Atomic Energy Act gives the federal government oversight over the other steps: processing the radioactive uranium and storing the radioactive waste that results.
Virginia Uranium argued that the state cannot ban uranium mining based on concerns about hazards connected with later steps. Chief Justice John Roberts, writing a dissent in the case for himself and Justices Stephen Breyer and Samuel Alito, said he agreed with that argument.
In a statement, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring called the ruling "a big win for the health and safety of Virginians and our environment."
"Our ban on uranium mining has protected our citizens, communities, local economies, and waterways for more than 30 years, and the Supreme Court has now confirmed that we are well within our rights as a state to decide that a risky, potentially dangerous activity like uranium mining is not for us," Herring said.
Walter Coles, the president and CEO of Virginia Uranium, said in a statement that the company is still studying the court's opinion but "obviously disappointed with the result."
"We continue to think that Virginia's uranium mining ban is both unlawful and unwise, and we are reviewing other options for challenging the Commonwealth's confiscation of Virginia Uranium's mineral estate," he said.
The case is Virginia Uranium v. John Warren, 16-1275.