Virginia should have last word on uranium editorials godanriver.com electricity billy elliot karaoke with lyrics

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Jump forward to the mid-2000s, and interest in mining the deposit once again had reached a fever pitch. Virginia Uranium Inc. (VUI) and its investors, working with property owner Walter Coles Sr. began a concerted effort to bring an end to the moratorium and begin mining the lode.

The closest VUI came to succeeding was when then-Gov. Bob McDonnell, in 2012, instructed state environmental officials to draft regulations for mining should the Assembly lift the moratorium. The legislature, though, rejected all attempts to lift the ban, and in 2014, after the election of Democrat Terry McAuliffe, a staunch foe of mining, as governor, VUI suspended its efforts to develop the site. In November 2017, Democrat Ralph Northam succeeded McAuliffe as governor, pledging there would be no effort during his administration to lift the moratorium.

VUI has argued before a federal trial court judge and a Fourth Circuit three-judge appellate panel that a 1954 law establishing the authority of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission gives the agency the ultimate power to regulate uranium mining in the United States. The company lost the original case in 2015, when the judge declared the act does not in “text and history” grant such powers to the NRC; the appeal of that ruling failed last year.

VUI is now asking the U.S. Supreme Court to accept the case for review in its 2018-19 term, and it has some rather powerful allies that have filed briefs on its behalf: the U.S. Department of Justice and the NRC. The Commonwealth of Virginia has filed a response, essentially saying to the high court that the federal government has no jurisdiction in this state environmental matter.

Legislators from across Southside, including the Dan River Region’s entire delegation, oppose lifting the moratorium. Of paramount importance to them — and to the Register & Bee, which also favors the status quo on the moratorium — is environmental safety. Nowhere in North America is uranium mined in a climatological region like the southeastern U.S. — all mining is currently in semi-arid regions such as in western Canada. Scientists’ fears of the waste products of the mining process leaching into the groundwater supply are very real and not easily addressed by mining proponents. (VUI’s proposal for the site would include concrete-lined pits for collection and storage of mining tailings, but there’s no guarantee for the life of the concrete or that waste still won’t leach into the groundwater.) In a part of the state where agriculture is a big industry and to which clean water is essential, that is a major hurdle. It was a prime concern in the early 1980s and it remains so in the late 2010s.

But just as important to us at this stage of the fight is the question of federalism — something that should be of concern to the Supreme Court, too. Specifically, what rights does Virginia (and any other state, for that matter) have when it comes to protecting its citizens and their environment?

The General Assembly has examined this issue several times, ultimately deciding each time to keep the moratorium in place. At what point is the authority of an individual state the final arbiter of its residents’ safety and the protection of the environment? In our view, mining in Virginia is a matter for Virginia’s elected leaders to decide.