The U.S. Supreme Court gave a mostly favorable reception to a Virginia law that bans mining at the nation’s largest known uranium deposit, as the justices weighed a challenge pressed by the owners of the property with help from the Trump administration.
Hearing arguments in Washington Monday, the justices considered whether Virginia’s uranium-mining ban runs afoul of the U.S. Atomic Energy Act, a 1954 law that gives federal regulators power over nuclear safety.
Virginia says the 1954 law didn’t affect the longstanding power of states to regulate mining of all types. The landowners contend the state’s law, though phrased as a ban on mining, was actually driven by radiological safety concerns over the process of milling the ore and the disposition of mine waste known as tailings.
Justices from across the court’s ideological divide said they were reluctant to scrutinize the reasons behind a state measure. Justice Neil Gorsuch said he was “hard pressed” to find many examples of the Supreme Court trying to determine a state legislature’s motives.
“It seems to present real opportunities for gamesmanship as well, sort of bad incentives for a state,” Justice Elena Kagan told the landowners’ lawyer, Charles Cooper. “Just cover over your purpose?”
Justice Sonia Sotomayor even wondered aloud whether state lawmakers would have to be questioned under oath about their motives.
But Justice Stephen Breyer said courts often try to discern what a statute’s purpose is.
“When you say don’t look at purpose, there I get off the boat because I think that’s our job as a court in a relevant case, to determine what the purpose of the statute is,” Breyer told Virginia Solicitor General Toby Heytens.
The Trump administration’s top Supreme Court lawyer, Solicitor General Noel Francisco, told the justices the key question was whether the state had a “plausible non-safety rationale” for its law.
The property, about 30 miles north of the North Carolina border in Pittsylvania County, was once owned by Thomas Jefferson. It’s now controlled by Virginia Energy Resources Inc. and the family of Walter Coles Sr. The Coles family first learned there might be uranium on the property in the 1970s.
The site contains an estimated 119 million pounds of uranium. Once valued at $6 billion, the deposit could displace the imports that now constitute 90 percent of the uranium used by the nation’s nuclear power plants.
Virginia first banned uranium mining in 1982 following the Three Mile Island nuclear power station meltdown near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, three years earlier.
The case is Virginia Uranium v. Warren, 16-1275.