RICHMOND — The Virginia-based company that owns the country’s largest uranium deposit filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday against Gov. Terry McAuliffe, seeking a reversal of the state’s 33-year-old ban on uranium mining.
The lawsuit thrusts the controversy back into the spotlight for the first time since McAuliffe (D) promised nearly two years ago to veto legislation allowing mining.
Virginia Uranium seeks to develop a deposit of 119 million pounds under southern Virginia farmland that it says could fuel U.S. nuclear power plants for two years. It argues that federal — not state — agencies have jurisdiction over the activity.
Supporters of uranium mining said it would bring jobs and tax revenue to an economically struggling region, while opponents say the potential harm to drinking water and the environment isn’t worth the financial boost.
During the height of the debate a few years ago, the company also irritated some with an aggressive lobbying effort that included campaign contributions, as well as trips to France and Canada for lawmakers and their spouses.
Walter Coles Sr., president and chief executive of Virginia Uranium, said the suit came after an expensive eight-year battle to persuade the state to repeal the ban and develop regulations.
“We do not come to this point lightly,” Coles said in a statement. “We had hoped that our steady progress and good faith cooperation with commonwealth legislators and officials would continue under Governor McAuliffe’s administration. But that was not to be.”
Coles said he interpreted McAuliffe’s veto threat as an “ultimatum” that gave the company “no course but to seek a legal resolution.”
McAuliffe spokeswoman Christina Nuckols declined to comment. The attorney general’s office is reviewing the lawsuit.
A few days after winning election in 2013, McAuliffe said he would not support uranium mining and was not convinced that it is safe for drinking water, according to The Virginian-Pilot. The issue is particularly contentious in Virginia Beach and the surrounding area, which relies on drinking water from a lake downstream from the deposit.
Jacob Powell, executive director of the Virginia Conservation Network, said the rural Pittsylvania County site is much wetter than mines in dry climates, a condition that increases the risk to nearby communities.
“We’re disappointed that Virginia Uranium is continuing down this path even though tens of thousands of Virginians have made it abundantly clear this is not something they want in Virginia,” he said. “This is a long-standing ban on uranium mining and milling that has frankly stood the test of time.”
Sen. John C. Watkins (R-Powhatan) called the opposition “environmental hype” and said that, although no technology is perfect, the likelihood of problems arising from uranium mining and milling is remote. Watkins, a longtime legislator who is not seeking reelection, said regulations and the permit process would protect natural resources.
“We have other mining that takes place all over Virginia,” and they produce waste, he said. “Titanium, coal, ore, granite — all of these things have unique exposures to the environment. The people that don’t like uranium mining, they don’t like coal mining, they don’t like fossil fuels. I don’t know what they want to do to make the light switch work.”
The lawsuit says extracting the material domestically would reduce dependence on Russia, which supplies about one-fifth of the uranium used in U.S. nuclear power plants.
The company says it controls 3,500 acres atop the largest known uranium deposit in the country — and one of the largest in the world — with a market value of $6 billion.
Besides McAuliffe, the suit names as defendants 10 state officials including Maurice Jones, secretary of commerce and trade, and Molly Ward, secretary of natural resources.
Virginia Uranium argues the state won’t develop mining regulations because of environmental and radiological safety concerns over the processing of uranium ore and storage of radioactive waste. The company says working out those issues is up to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, not the state.
“The commonwealth cannot refuse to develop state mining regulations based on concerns over activities that are permissible under federal law and under the clear jurisdiction of the federal government,” Charles J. Cooper, the attorney who filed the suit, said in a statement.
The Washington law firm of Cooper & Kirk filed the suit in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia in Danville. In addition to Virginia Uranium, the plaintiffs include Coles Hill LLC, Bowen Minerals and Virginia Energy Resources.