RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — A mining company that wants to tap one of the world's largest uranium deposits sued Virginia on Wednesday to end a decades-long state moratorium on mining the radioactive ore.
Virginia Uranium Inc., which puts a market value of $6 billion on the deposit, filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court to have the 1982 ban lifted so it can begin mining the 119 million-pound deposit near the North Carolina line.
The Chatham company argues that the state meddled in a matter that should be decided by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Virginia officials, the lawsuit contends, came to the wrong conclusion when it said uranium posed unacceptable health and safety risks.
"But more importantly, it had no business asking that question to begin with," the lawsuit said. "For the radiological safety concerns that are at the heart of Virginia's ban are squarely within the field of exclusive federal regulatory concern."
Virginia Uranium's quest to mine the so-called Coles Hill deposit in Pittsylvania County was the most heated environmental issue in the state for years until December 2013, when incoming Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe made it clear he wanted the ban kept in place.
The company's decision to abandon its efforts to lift the moratorium also followed an unsuccessful legislative bid to achieve that end.
A spokeswoman for McAuliffe said he would have no comment. The lawsuit also names state mining and environmental officials.
Virginia Uranium invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in political contributions, lobbying and to fly delegations of Virginia lawmakers to France and Canada to tour uranium mining and processing facilities.
But it couldn't overcome opponents who said mining and the storage of radioactive waste — called tailings — would threaten nearby rivers and streams that feed public water supplies.
Full-scale uranium mining has never been conducted on the East Coast and opponents said Virginia would be a poor place to start. They cited the state's wet climate and the fierce weather that often rakes the state. Most uranium mining is done in dry parts of the globe.
The mining would also include a milling operation to separate the radioactive ore from the rock.
Critics said that posed one of the biggest threats to the environment because of radioactive waste that would have to be stored for generations.
Virginia Uranium said the waste would have been secured in underground containment units that would keep it sealed even during floods or powerful storms.
The proposed mining had been the focus of a half dozen studies, none of which moved either side. A study by the National Academy of Sciences, completed in late 2011, was the most widely accepted.
While it did not make a recommendation on the ban, the authors said Virginia would have to overcome steep hurdles before allowing mining and milling of the ore to ensure the safety of workers, the public and the environment.
The ban was established after mining companies initially expressed interest in suspected uranium deposits around the state. It was intended to put any mining on hold until a study could be completed and regulations could be developed, but interest in mining the ore waned.
Virginia Uranium President and CEO Walter Coles Sr. said the company's decision to sue was not an easy one to make.
"We had hoped that our steady progress and good faith cooperation with commonwealth legislators and officials would continue under Gov. McAuliffe," he said in a statement. "But that was not to be."
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