The company that wants to mine uranium in Virginia is supporting a bill in the upcoming General Assembly calling for regulations to govern the proposed mining, according to lobbyists for Virginia Uranium. The move is widely seen by environmentalists and others as a way to authorize the mining while avoiding an up or down vote on the controversial project.
If approved, it would be the first full-scale uranium mining project east of the Mississippi. Mining in the U.S. has traditionally taken place in arid areas of the West, and opponents of the mine say south central Virginia’s relatively wet climate and susceptibility to hurricanes, storms and even earthquakes increases the health and safety risks of uranium mining in the state.
The Coles Hill deposit in Pittsylvania County has 119 million pounds of uranium and is the largest known deposit in the U.S. and one of the largest in the world. Virginia Uranium, Inc. estimates its worth at as much as $10 billion.
Legislators placed a moratorium on uranium mining in the early 1980s after the now-defunct Canadian firm, Marline Uranium Corp., lobbied for permission to mine the Coles Hill deposit. Marline dropped its request after the market for uranium tanked in the mid 1980s. The moratorium still stands and the law states that it will not be lifted “until a program for permitting uranium mining is established by statute.”
Whitt Clement, head of the state government relations team at Hunton & Williams and one of 19 lobbyists employed by Virginia Uranium, told a closed-door meeting of Virginia business leaders in Williamsburg last month that the company is working on legislation that would authorize state agencies to draft regulations to govern mining rather than voting directly on the project, two of the businessmen present say.
“It’s a de facto lifting of the ban,” Robert Burnley, president of Strategic Environmental Advice in Richmond, a consulting firm working with mine opponents, and former director of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, says. “Once the regulations are in place, the mining can commence.”
Ben Davenport, owner of First Piedmont Corp., a waste removal company in Chatham, Virginia, also attended the meeting of the board of directors of the state’s Chamber of Commerce. Chatham, surrounded by bucolic farmland and rolling hills and streams, is about six miles from the Coles Hill site.
“I would think they see that as a way to get the ban lifted” without having to win on a direct vote, Davenport, a member of the pro-business Alliance for Progress in Southern Virginia, said. “Apparently, they don’t think they can do that.”
Neither Clement nor Virginia Uranium returned calls requesting an interview. Julie Rautio, also a lobbyist for the company, says there is no hidden agenda in the company’s plan to lobby for a bill authorizing state agencies to draft regulations. Rautio says supporters of the bill will make it clear that by authorizing regulations legislators will be lifting the moratorium. At the same time, Rautio says the bill does not guarantee approval of the mine.
“It doesn’t actually mean mining will ever happen,” Rautio says. “It just means that a company could apply for a permit. [The requirements] could be so stringent that no company could ever meet them.”
Rautio says even if the legislature approves the bill, it will be another five to eight years before uranium mining could begin because of the state and federal regulatory hurdles. But opponents of the mine note that Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican, has said he favors the mine if it can be proved safe and argue that his administration is likely to move swiftly to get regulations in place.
Virginia state Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, who opposes the mine, says the vote on regulations is an attempt to shift the focus away from a more difficult debate.
“I can see how those who want to promote the uranium mine would rather argue over the details of regulation than the bigger question of can you do it safely and protect public health and safety, the question of should we do it at all,” Edwards says. “They want to shift the debate. They’re smart. The question becomes not whether but how.”
Edwards serves on the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee, one of two likely panels to handle the bill. Depending on how it is drafted, the bill could go to commerce and labor or the Senate Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources Committee. There are similar committees in the House of Delegates.
Environmental groups tracking the debate say it is impossible to predict which way the vote will go because so many legislators have yet to take a stand. The National Academy of Sciences released a study last December that took many in Richmond by surprise. It had been widely anticipated that the study would provide findings supportive of lifting the ban. But, while the study did not directly review the proposed site, it said the state would have to overcome “steep hurdles” before the ban could be safely lifted. McDonnell asked legislators to delay a vote until this year and appointed his own study panel. The Uranium Working Group, made up of officials at the state departments of health, environmental quality, and mines, minerals and energy, is expected to present its findings to the governor on Dec. 1.
If Virginia Uranium wins approval, it would operate a mine and milling plant on the Coles Hill site. After uranium is mined, the ore is taken to a mill where the stone is crushed to free up the uranium oxide or “yellow cake.” The waste materials, radioactive sand-like “tailings,” are mixed with water and chemicals, creating toxic slurry.
Tailings remain radioactive for thousands of years and have poisoned livestock, contaminated waterways and destroyed farms and pastures out West. Chemicals in the tailings have been linked to cancer in government studies. Virginia Uranium says it plans to place some of the tailings in underground holding compartments and some back in the mine.
Opponents say they fear the tailings will leach into groundwater or run off into surface rivers and streams.
But Virginia Uranium spokesman Patrick Wales has said the holding compartments will be state-of-the-art, lined with rock, clay and tough synthetic strong enough to prevent leaching. Although the company is almost half owned by Canadian firms, Virginia Uranium President Walter Coles says residents should be assured the land will be cared for because his family’s historic home, where he and his wife, Alice, live, is directly atop the uranium deposit.
Company executives say the mine would provide 324 jobs and pour $140 million a year into the local economy, which has been hard hit by the demise of the tobacco, textile and furniture industries.
However, Ben Davenport of the Alliance for Progress in Southern Virginia says just the possibility of a uranium mine has hurt the local economy, making it tougher to sell property near the proposed mine or attract newcomers to the area.
“We feel like a uranium mine would be a detriment to our economy,” Davenport said. “There’s a stigma and a perception that hurts our ability to attract businesses to locate here and people to move here.”