In June, the U.S. Supreme Court rendered a decision that has major significance for Virginia and especially for Northern Virginia, in addition to their decision on redistricting.
Few realize Virginia has a series of uranium lodes that run along the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The largest lode is in Pittsylvania County on the North Carolina border, but a major series of lodes are in Madison, Culpeper and Fauquier counties at the headwaters of the Occoquan River. The Occoquan is a major source of drinking water for Fairfax and Prince William counties.
After Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island near-disaster in 1979 -- a partial meltdown of a nuclear reactor -- the Virginia General Assembly in 1982 enacted a moratorium on uranium mining. While some federal permits are required for uranium mining, most thought the states were allowed to adopt more stringent environmental protections, as they are for any other mining or environmental requirements.
Shortly after I was elected to the House of Delegates, the worldwide prices of uranium spiked after the supply of uranium recycled from Russian nuclear warheads was exhausted. The estimates of the value of the 119-million-pound Pittsylvania County lode rose to $7 billion. There is still significant demand for uranium inside and outside of Virginia. More than 30 percent of electricity generated by Dominion Energy comes from nuclear reactors on Lake Anna near Fredericksburg and the James River in Surry County. Also, uranium is imported from abroad and west of the Mississippi River.
In 2012, a team of international investors was assembled, and their first step was to try to lobby the state legislature to lift the ban. They spread around campaign contributions, and before the post-McDonnell gift ban went into effect, state legislators were offered trips to France to see a uranium mine and, from the proponents point of view, to show how uranium mining can be done safely. About 20 elected officials took the trip. I did not.
Ultimately, the legislature left the mining moratorium in place. Many of us were concerned about the environmental risk posed by mining and we respected the members who represented the affected areas who were strongly opposed, in part due to strong local opposition, even though, they argued, they were in dire need for jobs in Southside and Southwest Virginia.
I opposed lifting the ban largely because of the potential impacts on Northern Virginia drinking water. More than 1 million people depend on the Occoquan River for drinking water and any threats to that water must be taken seriously.
However, the mining advocates were not done. Two years ago, they filed suit seeking to overturn the Virginia uranium mining moratorium, arguing that federal law pre-empted or prohibited any regulation by the state. The Trump Administration supported the pro-mining position.
The U.S. Supreme Court disagreed in a 6-3 ruling. The gist of the court’s decision was that Congress did not intend to take away states’ discretion to regulate this activity.
The Occoquan River is still under threat. Prince William County is currently re-evaluating its rural crescent zoning policy. Earlier this year, we discovered that Micron’s semiconductor manufacturing facility in Manassas was discharging water with elevated salt levels that was adversely affecting water quality in the Occoquan Reservoir. Fortunately, we were able to secure language in the state budget to require the Department of Environmental Quality to re-examine its permitting.
The Supreme Court opinion was an important victory for clean drinking water. Uranium mining could pose a long-term pollution threat in Virginia and especially in Northern Virginia. Drinking water is a fragile resource and once mines start to leak, remediation is very difficult. Letting the ban stand is an important victory.
The writer is a state senator representing the 36thDistrict in the state Senate. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.