Many in Dan River Region taking wait-and-see approach as Supreme Court dives into uranium debate

By Ceillie ​Simkiss, Danville Register & Bee – 5/24/2018

CHATHAM — Few people are betting on how the question of uranium mining will play out in the halls of the United States Supreme Court, which agreed earlier this week to take up the issue.

“We have to wait and see what the Supreme Court has to say,” said Pittsylvania County activist Anne Cockerel, who opposes mining the radioactive ore. “I hope that our guys in the Virginia legislature go to bat for us.”

The highest court in the land will begin hearing oral arguments this fall to see whether uranium can be mined in the state of Virginia. And Dan River Region residents have a particular interest in this case, since the country’s largest uranium deposit is located in Pittsylvania County. More specifically, it can be found on Coles Hill near Chatham.

News of the decision even became an unofficial topic of conversation Tuesday before the county’s board of supervisors opened a meeting.

“Did you hear about the uranium mining?” Supervisor Ron Scearce asked.

“Yeah,” shot back Board Chairman Bob Warren. Looking on was Supervisor Joe Davis

They grew quiet when asked by the Register & Bee for their thoughts on the issue. The three instead shook their heads and changed the subject.

The issue before the Supreme Court gained widespread attention on April 9, when the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Department of Justice filed a brief supporting a private corporation’s petition for the court to review the matter.

“There are a lot of people who aren’t sure this can be safely mined and transported where it needs to go… It is important to people who care about energy development and national defense,” Virginia court case expert Steve Emmert said. “Those who are guardians of state rights will be interested in seeing how much power has been allocated to Congress and how much remains.”

The largest known uranium deposit in the United States was discovered in the county in the late 1970s. In 1982, the Virginia General Assembly imposed a one-year moratorium on uranium mining, which was then extended indefinitely.

The question asked in this case is whether the federal Atomic Energy Act of 1954 preempts the Virginia ban on uranium mining, which is grounded in “radiological-safety concerns about related activities that are federally regulated under the AEA.”

“Federal law is supreme over state law,” Emmert explained. “If the federal law doesn’t apply to the full field, then states are free to legislate outside of what the federal law covers.”

In the mid-2000s, deposit owner Walter Coles Sr. and Chatham-based Virginia Uranium, which filed the court petition, began lobbying for a repeal of the ban in the state legislature. In 2013, several bills to lift the moratorium were introduced, but failed.

“This is a typical money play by politicians and those who would sell us down the river,” Halifax Town Council member Jack Dunavant said. “It’s a typical state’s rights issue. It will have to be decided at the [Supreme Court] level. Even if the [Supreme Court] goes against us, which I doubt that they will, it’ll be a long time if ever before it’s mined.”

Dunavant does not think that the court will rule in favor of Virginia Uranium. Even if it does, he thinks it will be appealed. Cockerel and her friends are just waiting to see what happens next.

“We’re just really worn and tired,” Cockerel said. “I don’t want to go put on my cape again. It’s kind of out of our hands.”

Del. Les Adams, R-Chatham, has supported the moratorium since before taking office in 2013 noted that it’s too early to speculate on how the court will rule.

“It’s premature to say anything now,” he said. “They’ve just accepted the writ… My position hasn’t changed.”

A decision is expected to be handed down from the bench by the end of June 2019.

“This will set national precedent from Florida to Alaska,” Emmert said.