On Monday, the US Supreme Court considered repealing the existing uranium mining ban in the state of Virginia, as lawyers from the state and federal government argued that they each have jurisdiction over the largest uranium deposit in the US.
Virginia is estimated to have uranium reserves of 119 million pounds, worth around $10bn, but mining of the radioactive mineral has been banned by the state government since 1983.
Mining firm Virginia Uranium has pressed the state and federal governments to withdraw the ban. The company’s lawyer, Charles J Cooper, put this case to the Supreme Court alongside solicitor general Noel J Francisco, representing the US Government.
They argued that the ban could not be upheld if the state’s reasons for implementing the ban are not made clear. The ban is officially a temporary moratorium that has never been repealed, therefore the reasons behind its implementation have never been established.
Francisco went on to say that upholding the ban could infringe on federal authority. He argued that if the ban is, in fact, designed to protect local people from the dangers of uranium production and the storage of its waste products, the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which has authority over matters of production and storage, should be responsible for the land.
“Here, the purpose inquiry actually narrows the scope of pre-emption because not only does the state have to use the authority that it does have to reach into and indirectly touch upon something that the federal government regulates, it has to do so for a very specific and impermissible purpose,” said Francisco.
While turning the land over to federal authority could open it up to mining operations, and what Francisco calls a “multi-billion dollar industry”, the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) has historically warned about the dangers of uranium mining.
The centre claims that the process leaves behind radionuclides in mine tailings, which can contaminate local sources of drinking water, and increase the risk of cancer among local inhabitants.
The NCBI also commented that radioactive material decays over thousands of years, raising the possibility of people being exposed to radionuclides long after current regulations are in effect.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg argued that the ban has merit, as it protects workers in an industry that has already seen 23 fatalities this year, according to the Mine Safety and Health Administration.
The NCBI also claims that uranium mining poses a significant threat of lung cancer, especially for workers. “Radon’s alpha-emitting radioactive decay products are strongly and causally linked to lung cancer in humans,” the group said in Uranium Mining in Virginia. “Indeed, the populations in which this has been most clearly established are uranium miners that were occupationally exposed to radon.”
While the conflict between state and federal authority remains a legal grey area, the Supreme Court appears unwilling to permit uranium mining due to these safety concerns.
Mining Technology’s Mining Safety content is supported by USA mining safety specialists Carroll Technologies Group.