McCandlish Holton, PC Directors Cameron Beck, Michael Gladstone and Audra Dickens obtained a significant and noteworthy trial outcome on behalf of the Commonwealth of Virginia in the matter of Virginia Uranium Inc., et al, v. Commonwealth of Virginia, et al, heard recently in the Circuit Court of Wise County, Virginia. Following a four-day trial in July of 2020, the trial court upheld Virginia’s uranium mining moratorium. The outcome is significant because of its statewide implications for the human and environmental health of Virginians.
Background of the Litigation
After unsuccessful efforts lobbying the legislature to reverse the General Assembly’s 1983 temporary uranium mining moratorium, Virginia Uranium Inc. and land owners of a uranium deposit in rural Pittsylvania County, Virginia, filed lawsuits in federal and state court in 2015 to remove the Commonwealth’s uranium mining moratorium. The Plaintiffs hoped to proceed with the mining and processing of uranium at Coles Hill Farm in Pittsylvania County.
The federal lawsuit concluded in June 2019 with a dismissal by the United States Supreme Court of the Plaintiffs’ state-law pre-emption claim.
The Plaintiffs’ state lawsuit, filed in the Circuit Court of Wise County, Virginia, named the Commonwealth of Virginia, the Governor, and numerous state officials involved in mining and environmental regulation as defendants. The suit alleged that Virginia’s temporary uranium mining moratorium amounted to an unconstitutional damage or taking of the uranium mineral estate at Coles Hill. Virginia Uranium Inc., and its co-plaintiffs demanded financial compensation or a declaratory judgment that the moratorium was unconstitutional. The Plaintiffs further requested the court order the Commonwealth to accept their uranium mining permit application. During initial proceedings the court dismissed the compensation claim as time-barred.
The state court stayed the claims for declaratory judgment and injunction from 2017 until 2019 while the U.S. Supreme Court considered the federal case. The Plaintiffs revived the state case after Virginia Uranium Inc.’s loss in the U.S. Supreme Court. The Virginia Attorney General engaged McCandlish Holton, PC in 2019 to defend the Commonwealth of Virginia, the Governor, and the individual defendants in the state constitutional suit.
The Defense: Meeting the Strict Scrutiny Standard
The case presented a challenging set of constitutional property-taking issues, dense technical radiological and environmental issues associated with uranium mining and the nuclear fuel cycle, and almost 40 years of extensive legislative attention to the question of uranium mining in Virginia. Prior to trial the trial court had ruled the Defendants must justify the uranium mining moratorium under a strict scrutiny analysis by proving a compelling state interest and use of the least burdensome means to achieve the compelling state interest.
Under careful Covid-19 protocol from July 6 to 9, 2020, the Wise County Circuit Court tried the Plaintiffs’ claims of an unconstitutional taking and request for declaratory judgment and an injunction. To meet the strict scrutiny analysis set by the trial court, the Defendants entered extensive proof establishing Virginians would be much less safe without the moratorium - that is, under current and reasonably foreseeable circumstances, the temporary moratorium was the least burdensome means to protect the health and safety interests served by the moratorium.
The Wise County Circuit Court Ruling
On July 30, 2020, the Wise Circuit Court issued its ruling, finding that the Commonwealth Defendants met the strict scrutiny analysis and denying Plaintiffs’ requested relief.
“Clearly…the greater harm would be against the people. The common law supports it. Common sense supports it. To find otherwise would be untenable.”
-From the Decision in Virginia Uranium Inc., et al, v. Commonwealth of Virginia, et al, heard recently by Judge Chadwick Dotson in the Circuit Court of Wise County, Virginia.
This ruling helps ensure that uranium mining, with its acknowledged immediate and long-term radiological hazards and risks, will not be authorized in Virginia until the General Assembly is confident that demonstrated protective technologies and engineering solutions are available to ensure the health and safety of Virginians and the environment.
Cam Beck is a Director devoting his practice to civil litigation with a focus on trucking defense, retail and products liability, and commercial disputes. He also has experience in numerous construction matters. His extensive jury trial experience includes over sixty jury trials throughout the Commonwealth of Virginia, in both state and federal court. Cam is Past-President of the Virginia Association of Defense Attorneys (VADA), former Chair of ALFA International’s Transportation Practice Group and a member of the Trucking Industry Defense Association (TIDA).
Audra is a Director in the litigation practice group. Her practice focuses on civil litigation, primarily in the areas of automobile liability defense and trucking defense, as well as premises, medical malpractice, and products liability defense. Audra is the Chair of the Auto & Transportation Liability section of the Virginia Association of Defense Attorneys (VADA).
Mike Glastone has broad litigation experience including matters involving personal injury and property damage, insurance and coverage, commercial matters, trucking, professional liability, product liability, immigration/removal, and worksite enforcement. He has successfully defended design professionals in construction defect matters. His product liability experience includes a focus on industrial machinery, warnings and labels, product development and introduction, and associated commercial issues. He obtained the first post-Kumho Tire exclusion of an Accident Reconstruction Expert in a trucking matter. Mike has successfully defended and asserted trade secret claims in State and Federal Courts.