Supreme Court Upholds Virginia’s Ban on Uranium Mining

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ruled on Monday that Virginia may ban uranium mining in the state.

The case, Virginia Uranium v. Warren, No. 16-1275, was decided by fractured vote, with two three-justice blocs agreeing on the bottom line but differing in their reasoning. A third group of three justices dissented.

The case started with the discovery of the largest known deposit of uranium in the United States in the 1970s in Pittsylvania County, Va. After a private company began leasing the mineral rights, state lawmakers imposed an indefinite moratorium on uranium mining.

The question for the justices was whether a federal law, the Atomic Energy Act, barred the state moratorium. That law regulates what can be done with uranium and the radioactive waste it generates after it is extracted from the earth. If the federal law applied, it would have displaced the moratorium and allowed mining to proceed.

But the federal law regulates only the second and third steps in uranium mining. The first step is extracting the raw ore from the ground. The second is separating the ore from waste rock, or tailings, and concentrating it into so-called yellowcake, which is sold. The third step is storing the tailings, which are radioactive.

The state moratorium addressed only extraction, which is beyond the reach of the federal law. Owners of the land containing the uranium contended that the moratorium’s true purpose was to address safety concerns linked to radiation from the later steps, but state officials said the ban was justified by environmental and economic factors instead.

Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, writing for three of the justices in the majority, said the federal law did not apply to activities banned by the state law. “Congress conspicuously chose to leave untouched the states’ historic authority over the regulation of mining activities on private lands within their borders,” he wrote. “It is our duty to respect not only what Congress wrote but, as importantly, what it didn’t write.”

Justice Gorsuch said he would not speculate about state lawmakers’ intentions. “If trying to peer inside legislators’ skulls is too fraught an enterprise,” he asked, “shouldn’t we limit ourselves to trying to glean legislative purposes from the statutory text where we began?”

Justices Clarence Thomas and Brett M. Kavanaugh joined Justice Gorsuch’s opinion.

In a second opinion siding with the state, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said she agreed with much of Justice Gorsuch’s analysis but wrote that “his discussion of the perils of inquiring into legislative motive sweeps well beyond the confines of this case.” Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan joined Justice Ginsburg’s opinion.

In dissent, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said the case was an easy one. The only reason offered for the moratorium, he wrote, was “Virginia’s desire to ban the more hazardous steps that come after mining.” The moratorium, he said, was an indirect way to achieve a goal forbidden by the federal law.

Justices Stephen G. Breyer and Samuel A. Alito Jr. joined the dissent.

Chief Justice Roberts criticized the majority for suggesting that “developing this site is unnecessary because domestic production accounts for less than 10 percent of the uranium used in the country.”

“Given the critical role of uranium to the country’s energy industry and national defense,” the chief justice wrote, “the near complete reliance on foreign sources of uranium — including substantial imports from Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan — would seem to suggest just the opposite.”

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