Pittsylvania County does not have the authority to ban uranium mining, according to a recent opinion by the Virginia attorney general's office.
Late last month, County Administrator Dan Sleeper, acting on behalf of the Board of Supervisors, asked Sen. Robert Hurt to request an attorney general's opinion on whether the county could pass an ordinance banning uranium mining.
Hurt contacted the attorney general's office, which referred to a formal opinion issued on Nov. 14, 2008, that says localities cannot enact any law that "nullifies or pre-empts state or federal law."
To do so without express permission from the General Assembly would be unconstitutional, the opinion states.
The same opinion cast a shadow over so-called "chemical trespass" ordinances, which some localities, including Chatham, were considering for protection against uranium mining.
The idea for a ban on uranium mining was suggested by Karen Maute of Danville, a well-known zoning and environmental advocate.
Other residents opposed to uranium mining also have called for an outright ban.
Supervisors' Legislative Committee met in March to explore tightening the county's zoning ordinance, but tabled a possible ban.
"I think we need to address the issue and look at it closely and not make any hasty decisions one way or the other," said the committee's chairman, Staunton River District Supervisor Marshall Ecker.
The committee also includes Banister District Supervisor William Pritchett and Chatham-Blairs District Supervisor Henry "Hank" Davis Jr.
Davis recently pushed for a stronger resolution from supervisors on uranium mining.
The resolution, adopted unanimously in February, recommends that a state study determine uranium mining will cause "no damage or harm" to the county.
It was sent to the Virginia Coal and Energy Commission's Uranium Mining Subcommittee, which is conducting a comprehensive study on the dangers and benefits of uranium mining.
The Coles Hill uranium deposit about six miles northeast of Chatham is one of the largest deposits in the United States.
Even if the Coal and Energy Commission determines uranium mining can be done safely, the General Assembly would have to lift the state's moratorium, which has been in place since 1982.
The board's chairman, Westover District Supervisor Coy Harville, said it's a state issue.
"Right now all we can do is listen," he said. "The state has a moratorium and I respect that. They have more authority than we do."
According to the attorney general's opinion, "a Virginia locality may not enact an ordinance that diminishes, alters, or eliminates legal rights, particularly where the state or federal government may be said to 'occupy the field," unless given specific authority to do so by the General Assembly or the Congress of the United States."
The four-page opinion was issued at the request of Del. Riley E. Ingram of Hopewell.
The attorney general said county and municipal ordinances must be consistent with the laws of the commonwealth.
"Thus, if an entity operates in compliance with state law, a Virginia locality cannot impose a criminal liability on that entity," said the attorney general.
"Likewise, a locality may not prohibit or limit the authority of state or federal agencies to carry out their duties as prescribed by law."
Supervisors could still ban uranium mining, but a ban would likely be overturned in court.
Even if the General Assembly eventually lifts Virginia's moratorium, state and federal laws would govern uranium mining and processing.
Supervisors also would have to rezone the Coles Hill property and Virginia Uranium Inc., which is hoping to mine the deposit, would have to obtain a special-use permit from the Board of Zoning Appeals.
Hurt said it appears the attorney general's opinion addresses the county's question on a possible ban on uranium mining.
However, in a June 3 letter to Sleeper, the senator said, "In the event that you do not believe this opinion fully answers your request , I will be happy to follow up with the attorney general's office."