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Governor Wants to Keep Ban on Uranium Mining

Gov. Robert F. McDonnell

By Brad Fulton and Claire Porter
Capital News Service

Richmond, Va. – Gov. Bob McDonnell is asking the 2012 General Assembly to delay any action on lifting Virginia’s 30-year moratorium on mining uranium.

He said legislators should keep the ban in place while a newly created group of officials from various state agencies studies the proposal to allow a company to mine and mill uranium in Southside Virginia.

“We must base all decisions on this matter on public safety and science,” McDonnell said in a statement Thursday.

More to the story: Local blog Your Piece of the Planet penned an opinion on what uranium mining would mean for the state.

“While uranium mining could mean the creation of high-paying jobs for our citizens, a boost for the important nuclear power industry, increased economic development for the region, and the generation of significant tax revenue for the entire Commonwealth, we must prudently study this issue to ensure that such mining would not impair the health of our people, or the condition of our environment.”

The Republican governor acted after receiving a letter from members of the uranium subcommittee of the General Assembly’s Coal and Energy Commission. Subcommittee members asked that the administration draft proposed regulations on uranium mining and that the assembly wait until 2013 to consider lifting the mining ban.

McDonnell said he also considered a report issued in December by the National Academy of Sciences about Virginia Uranium Inc.’s proposal to mine the radioactive metal from the Coles Hill deposit in Pittsylvania County, near the North Carolina line.

“The NAS study was broadly helpful in providing a better understanding of the associated economic benefits, which are potentially significant, as well as the possible risks, which are potentially serious, associated with uranium mining in this geography and climate,” the governor said.

“However, in order for an informed decision to be made by state lawmakers, we need more detailed information. Before we make any decisions about whether or not to proceed down the path to development, we must be certain that uranium mining can be conducted safely and responsibly. Public safety must be the primary factor in the ultimate determination as to whether to proceed with uranium mining.”

McDonnell said officials from the state agencies over health, environmental quality and mining would study uranium mining and “develop a draft regulatory framework for presentation to the Coal and Energy Commission next year.”

He said this working group would “allow thorough opportunity for public participation in its work.”

McDonnell’s announcement came the day after two groups from Southside Virginia, accompanied by six of the area’s legislators, urged the General Assembly to delay any action on lifting the state’s 1982 moratorium on mining uranium.

The Virginia Coalition, with community leaders from Halifax County and South Boston, and the Alliance for Progress, representing Pittsylvania County and Danville, organized the press conference to express opposition to Virginia Uranium’s plan. They said uranium mining might hurt the economy as well as environment.

“We are keenly aware that the stigma and perception of a uranium mine will make any future economic development virtually impossible in an area already experiencing high unemployment,” said Delegate James Edmunds (R-Halifax).

Delegate Donald Merricks, (R-Chatham) said the decision to mine uranium should not be rushed. He noted that state officials haven’t yet developed rules for regulating such mining.

“The risks associated with mining and milling are real. There are no regulations, there are no plans on which to base a sound decision,” Merricks said. “While there is potential for economic gain, there is also potential for economic loss. I cannot in good conscience, support lifting the ban with all of these unanswered questions still looming.”

At the news conference, Tom Leahy, director of the Virginia Beach Department of Utilities, said the risks of a catastrophe from uranium mining may small – but if it happens, the results would be devastating.

“Risk is probability times consequence. The probability of an event might be small, but if the consequence is great, it might be an unacceptable risk,” Leahy said.

The risk is that radioactive material from mining operations could contaminate water supplies. According to the National Academy of Science, in the event of heavy rainfall, leftover tailings from mining uranium “have the potential to lead to the release of contaminants if facilities are not designed and constructed to withstand such an event.”

The Coles Hill site is upstream from at least six water supply intakes, from Halifax to Roanoke Rapids, N.C.

Leahy said he does not believe the ban should be lifted until “it could be shown with a reasonable degree of certainty that there would be no catastrophic release of tailings downstream.”

Virginia Uranium Inc. has asserted that only safe, modern technology would be used in its operations and that it would safely dispose of uranium tailings.

The company estimates that the uranium deposit in Coles Hill is worth more than $10 billion. The proposed mining operation would bring jobs to an area hit hard by double-digit unemployment, Virginia Uranium officials say. They said the operation would create roughly 300 jobs with annual salaries of more than $65,000.

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