From a River’s Banks to the High-Court Bench

Mike Pucci ’82 helps ensure that the environment reigns “Supreme” in Virginia

By Jeanne Nagle | September 9, 2019 | On the Job

For years, the prospect of allowing uranium mining in their own backyard stirred mixed feelings in the people of Pittsylvania County, Virginia. Some residents felt that opening up mining operations on the Coles Hill property, north of Dansville, would be beneficial because it would create jobs in a region that sorely needed them. Others, including Roanoke River Basin Association (RRBA) Vice President Michael Pucci ’82, were of the opinion that the threat posed to the area’s water supply from hazardous runoff far outweighed any jobs gain.

Meanwhile, property owner Walter Coles, who is also president of the mining consortium Virginia Uranium, felt so strongly that he should be allowed to unearth the elemental deposits found deep beneath his land that he took his case to the Virginia legislature and, failing that, through a series of court battles.

In the end, the only opinion that mattered was that of the United States Supreme Court, which, on June 17 of this year, upheld Virginia’s decades-long ban on uranium mining. The ruling effectively put the kibosh on Walter Coles’ mining plans, and gave the RRBA and others a crucial victory in the fight to maintain a source of clean water for area residents.

The role of alumnus Pucci in the protracted legal wrangling surrounding the case came down to part serendipity and part preparation, the latter courtesy of UWSP.

There he was in 2011, retired after nearly 30 years at pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) and living in a lake home on the Virginia-North Carolina border, when he got wind of the mining dispute. The former natural resources major—he also has degrees in biology and secondary education—was keenly aware of what uranium mining could mean to his idyllic retirement landscape, let alone how it would adversely affect the lives of so many in the region.

“We get a ton of rain here because we’re in proximity to the coast,” Pucci says. “If there were to be uranium mining at that site, the water would carry the radioactive extract from that site very quickly down into the Roanoke River. And that would then send the water downstream and contaminate the entire chain, the drinking water source for Virginia and North Carolina.”

Feeling compelled to act upon his knowledge, he joined the board, and then became an officer, of the RRBA. The role of river-basin advocate came easily to Pucci, who had retired as vice president of external advocacy, federal government affairs and public policy at GSK. Basically, he had spent years on the road talking to consumers as a national speaker for the pharmaceutical industry. During that time he had spearheaded a campaign promoting the company’s patient assistance program, which helped make medications affordable for those with no or poor insurance. His work on behalf of the RRBA was in the same vein.

“We were talking to elected officials and meeting with citizen groups around the region, creating awareness of the threat,” he recalls. “Everyone understood the importance of water.”

The RRBA garnered plenty of support from residents, including former NASCAR driver Ward Burton, who raised $300,000 for the cause by hosting a fundraising event at his ranch in neighboring Halifax County. The stock-car driver oversees the Ward Burton Wildlife Foundation, which has land management and stewardship as part of its mission statement. Pucci also credits the work of “some dynamite lobbyists” with creating access to property and business owners in the region.

In 2015, after Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe stated unequivocally that he would follow the lead of his predecessor and keep the mining ban intact, the battle over Coles Hill moved from the statehouse to the courthouse. Virginia Uranium filed suit in U.S. District Court against the Commonwealth of Virginia in an attempt to lift the ban on the grounds that uranium mining and storage were the purview of the Atomic Energy Commission, and therefore the will of the federal government in such matters should take precedence over a state’s traditional right to legislate mining practices within its borders. In other words, the claim was that Virginia legislators had overstepped their bounds by instituting and upholding the uranium mining ban on private land.

The District Court case was thrown out, and another suit brought by Virginia Uranium against the governor also was denied. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case in November 2018, and issued its opinion the following June.

Pucci gives plenty of credit for the Supreme Court victory to lawyers with the Southern Environmental Law Center, who represented the pro-ban contingency in front of the nation’s highest court. He also gives a healthy tip of the hat to the multitudes of lobbyists, advocates and volunteers who pitched in at the local level and behind the scenes. As for his own role in the eventual outcome, he acknowledges that, as RRBA president and ipso-facto mouthpiece for the cause, he played a crucial role in communicating with the public and swaying the opinion of legislators and judges.

“I had confidence in what I knew,” he recalls, “and I could not be beat on any argument and discussion.”

All the tools he wielded so confidently stem from his time at UWSP, says Pucci. As mentioned, classes in water resources, forestry and wildlife management gave him an excellent knowledge base regarding the potential environmental impact involved in the Virginia matter. In addition, there were public policy courses and a stint in student government at the university, which helped prepare him not only for his work at GSK, but also to rally forces against uranium mining in his adopted hometown.

“My contribution to the whole success of this campaign came from Stevens Point,” he says, “in everything that I learned there. If I didn’t have all the background, I wouldn’t have been as effective.”

Pucci has since stepped down as president of the RRBA, although he remains on as vice president of the organization. “I stayed through the battle and then some,” he says, referring to the years he spent working to uphold the mining ban, as well as his part in negotiations with Duke Energy to clean up a coal ash spill emanating from the company’s Dan River Steam Station in 2014. “You can do that for only so much time [before you] step out and let somebody else do it.”

Despite the fact that it has cut into his post-work life of leisure, Pucci does not regret his involvement with the association, particularly when it comes to the Supreme Court case.

“It’s probably the thing that I’m most proud of in my entire career,” he says. “I mean, holy smokes, this was big.”


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