Uranium company sues the commonwealth over mining ban
A company that wants to mine a massive uranium deposit in Pittsylvania County has sued the state, seeking to overturn a 33-year-old mining ban.
Chatham-based Virginia Uranium Inc. filed a lawsuit in federal court in Danville on Wednesday asking that a 1982 law imposing uranium mining moratorium be nullified.
The company wants to mine a 119-million-pound uranium ore deposit in the Coles Hill area near Chatham in Pittsylvania County. The deposit is the largest known in the U.S. and one of the largest in the world.
Virginia Uranium, which owns about 3,500 acres atop the deposit, said that the uranium ore would have a market value of about $6 billion if it could be mined and sold to U.S. nuclear plants.
Virginia Uranium’s efforts to overturn the ban created a firestorm of controversy in Southern and Southeastern Virginia three years ago. The issue pitted concerns about environmental damage and contamination of drinking water against the promise of hundreds of new jobs in a chronically economically depressed area.
“We do not come to this point lightly,” Walter Coles Sr., Virginia Uranium’s president and CEO, said in a statement. “For almost eight years, and at great expense, we have worked in good faith with our community, our local government and the General Assembly, as well as myriad state agencies. Our goal has been one simple thing: the enactment of legislation repealing the 1982 law banning uranium mining and the development of uranium mining regulations by the Commonwealth of Virginia.”
The last pro-uranium bill, presented in the General Assembly in 2013, would have outlined regulations to govern mining. The legislation, however, was withdrawn by its sponsor while it was still in committee.
Before he was inaugurated, then-Gov.-elect Terry McAuliffe pledged to veto any bill removing the ban.
“In the face of this ultimatum, and in light of our years of dedicated efforts, we have no course but to seek a legal resolution,” Coles said in his statement.
Cooper & Kirk, a Washington, D.C., law firm, filed the suit in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia in Danville. The plaintiffs include Virginia Uranium Inc., Coles Hill LLC, Bowen Minerals LLC and Virginia Energy Resources Inc. Coles Hill and Bowen Minerals own the land containing the uranium deposit. Virginia Energy is the Vancouver, British Columbia-based parent company of Virginia Uranium.
The 11 defendants in the suit are state officials, including McAuliffe; Maurice Jones, Virginia secretary of commerce and trade; and Molly Ward, secretary of natural resources.
The suit says that the commonwealth’s uranium ban is based on concerns about the processing of uranium ore, particularly the storage of uranium tailings, the rock left behind after uranium is removed from the raw ore. The plaintiffs contend that issue falls under federal regulatory oversight, and therefore the state law should be declared invalid.