Supreme Court Upholds Virginia’s Uranium Mining Ban

In an unanticipated plot twist, the Supreme Court’s most liberal and conservative Justices joined together and upheld a decades-old Virginia law banning uranium mining, and did so over the objection of the Trump Justice Department and three other Justices who now occupy the ideological center of the Court. The case turned on whether the Federal Atomic Energy Act, which regulates the development of uranium to be used in nuclear power plants, “pre-empted” the state law mining ban because the state law was, in essence, a ban of uranium development and therefore the federal law should govern as is the case in any direct conflict between state and federal laws.

Why This Matters:  For decades, “states’ rights” have been the rallying cry of conservatives in politics and on the Supreme Court because often state laws were more conservative and pro-business and less protective of worker’s rights and the environment.  Ironically, just as the Supreme Court is poised for a long era of conservative opinions given the Trump appointees, this states’ rights philosophy may come back around on them.  Increasingly, state and local governments are taking actions and passing laws that are more protective of the environment than federal rules and laws. Cases like this one will test whether the Trump Justices will alter their prior philosophical views and court precedents to overturn state laws in order to reach the more pro-business result.  Next year the Court will decide a similar case in which the state of Montana passed a law that would clean up a notorious toxic waste site to a higher standard than the federal Environmental Protection Agency is requiring.  This could get interesting.

Pre-emption Based on Implied Legislative Intent Lost Out.

In case you were wondering who was on the “winning” side, Justice Gorsuch, a Trump appointee, wrote the majority opinion for himself and Justices Thomas and Kavanaugh upholding the traditionally conservative “states rights” position, and liberal Justices Kagan, Ginsburg, and Sotomayor agreed with the result but Justice Ginsburg wrote a separate opinion.  Justices Breyer, Roberts and Alito argued that the state’s intent to ban nuclear power development was clear enough — and the impact of the state law, whether clearly intended or not, pre-empts a federal law.

  • The super smart lawyers at SCOTUS blog thought the conservative Justices dodged the toughest question presented in the case — “What is the proper role for state legislative purpose in a pre-emption analysis?”
  • SCOTUS blog explains that “[t]he Gorsuch opinion stated that state legislative purpose has no place in pre-emption analyses, whereas the Ginsburg opinion expressed discomfort at such a hard-line stance.
  • Gorsuch reasoned that if courts started to “read between the lines” of state statutes to infer intent it would incentivize state legislatures to “resort to secrecy and subterfuge” rather than openly explain their true purpose for passing a law that is governing an area in which there is also federal law.
  • Ginsburg, on the other hand, “rejected the argument that Virginia’s ban was a pretext for regulating the radiological safety of milling and tailings management, even though the ban makes it very unlikely that such activities will take place within the state’s borders.”

To Go Deeper: You can read the Court’s opinions here.

Up Next

Alaska Indigenous Community Gives Fatal Blow to Proposed Mine Project

Alaska Indigenous Community Gives Fatal Blow to Proposed Mine Project

By Amy Lupica, ODP Staff Writer Pedro Bay Corp., an Alaska Native group, has struck a blow to the controversial Pebble Mine project, which had promised to be the largest gold mine in North America. Located near Alaska’s famed Bristol Bay,  development on the site threatened to damage the largest sockeye salmon fishery in the world, […]

Continue Reading 567 words
Endangered Flower at Crossroads of U.S.’s Lithium Future

Endangered Flower at Crossroads of U.S.’s Lithium Future

A battle is raging in Nevada as the U.S. Fish, and Wildlife Service announces it will be listing Tiehm’s buckwheat flower as an endangered species, striking a blow to a lithium mining project in the region. Lithium is required for the batteries that power electric vehicles, which the government is making significant investments in to reduce the nation’s carbon footprint. But environmentalists argue that the Rhyolite Ridge lithium mine in Nevada will do more harm than good. 

Why This Matters: The world is facing two major crises: global temperature rise and biodiversity loss. In the U.S., investing in renewable energy and electric power has been identified by experts as the quickest path to net-zero emissions and preventing catastrophic temperature rise.

Continue Reading 531 words
Defining Regenerative Agriculture

Defining Regenerative Agriculture

by Ashira Morris, ODP Staff Writer The American agriculture system is in need of an overhaul. A combination of more erratic weather resulting from climate change and years of soil depletion make it nearly impossible to simply continue monoculture farming. An approach called regenerative agriculture could change the system. But even as farmers and agriculture […]

Continue Reading 571 words

Want the planet in your inbox?

Subscribe to the email that top lawmakers, renowned scientists, and thousands of concerned citizens turn to each morning for the latest environmental news and analysis.