Chamber breaks its silence on uranium – December 14, 2012

Saying its membership expects it to act on their interests, the Danville Pittsylvania County Chamber of Commerce has broken its silence about uranium mining and milling by supporting Virginia’s mining moratorium.

Chamber President Laurie Moran said the chamber’s board was honoring the membership by making the statement it released Tuesday. “They felt it was important that the business community in our region be represented,” she said.

The chamber is asking that the 1982 moratorium not only be kept in place, but says it “opposes the development of a uranium permitting program and regulatory framework that would effectively end the state’s moratorium.”

Virginia Uranium Inc. wants to mine a 119-million-pound uranium ore deposit about six miles from Chatham. It has been lobbying the General Assembly to direct the state to write regulations for uranium mining and milling and Sen. John Watkins, R-Powhatan, has said he will sponsor legislation to do that in the  upcoming General Assembly session.

The chamber said this is not the time.

“The board of directors … believes there are still too many questions and uncertainties that could have negative consequences on our region,” the chamber said Tuesday.

Other business leaders from around Virginia have had little to say in the debate over whether or not to allow uranium mining in Virginia. The Virginia Chamber of Commerce does not mention uranium mining once in its 2013 Legislative Agenda, released in October. The Hampton Roads Chamber does not plan to take a position on the subject. Bucking the crowd, the Halifax County Chamber said in September that it is adamantly opposed to uranium mining in the Commonwealth.

The Danville Pittsylvania County Chamber’s board said it has yet to be convinced uranium mining would serve the greater good.

“Despite multiple studies and informational forums, there are still significant questions around whether uranium can be mined and milled safely in the Commonwealth of Virginia, specifically at the Coles Hill site,” the statement said.

The statement also expressed concern about the area’s economic viability if a uranium mine and mill were allowed to be established in Pittsylvania County.

“While considering possible economic benefits of such an industry, the board still has significant concerns surrounding the potential impact of uranium mining and milling on existing businesses and the region’s ability to attract, retain and grow jobs,” the statement said.

The local chamber of commerce has approximately 700 member enterprises. The board asked its members in October to weigh in on mining issues. Members were asked whether or not the chamber should take a position; if yes, what position; and what impact they believe a local uranium mining and milling operation would have on their businesses. The board said it would make a decision taking those opinions into account, but that it wouldn’t necessary reflect the sentiments of the responders.

Moran said the results of their questions would not be released, explaining it was not a scientific survey, but a request for comments.

“Because we promised to keep it confidential, we’re not going to say how that came back,” she said.

“I totally trust our board is engaged enough in this issue that their position is reflective of the membership,” she said.

Gov. Bob McDonnell’s Uranium Working Group is also looking at the potential effects that uranium mining and milling could have on business if the moratorium is lifted. The Uranium Working Group was formed in January by McDonnell to explore concerns connected with the uranium industry and form a draft regulatory framework for uranium mining and milling. The working group’s final report was issued Nov. 30, but was missing a socioeconomic study, which is not due back to the working group until Jan. 15.

That study examines perceptions of the uranium industry on economic development, measured through surveys of Virginia business leaders; 20 percent of businesses being surveyed will be from Danville and Pittsylvania County, with the remaining 80 percent coming from the rest of the state.

Organizations have said the absence of that report has stymied them from taking a position.

Moran said that while the board would have liked to have seen that final study, board members felt their own research was enough to form a position statement — and that the state’s findings wouldn’t alter their own.

Danville Mayor Sherman Saunders said he is “not surprised” by the chamber’s position.

“I’m not hearing a lot of people in favor of it,” he said, referring to the project.

Saunders noted that the chamber’s position seems to reflect what he’s hearing from people with whom he speaks. He said the area needs jobs, but the health of the community comes first.

“I’m hearing volumes of concern over the health factor,” he said.

Tim Barber, chairman of the Pittsylvania County Board of Supervisors, said the chamber’s position is akin to its own.

“That’s basically what we said,” Barber said. “We took the same stand.”

He said the potential mine and mill’s effect on business is a concern, and pointed to the National Academy of Sciences report’s evaluation that “steep hurdles” stand between the state and a safe uranium mining and milling industry.

“That hasn’t been overcome,” he said.

The topic of stigma was raised last week at AP Day at the Capitol in Richmond, an annual event to brief journalists on the issues before the General Assembly. The event included a panel on uranium mining.

Patrick Wales, a geologist and spokesman for Virginia Uranium, said Chmura and George Mason University have covered the stigma issue and “did not find any.”

“You’d think if all these horrible things were true, you’d find some impact of that on the economy,” he said.

Wales said the area needs the mine at Coles Hill to provide more jobs, citing the area’s decline in agriculture and manufacturing.

“If we have no agriculture or manufacturing and we’re against new industry, what do we have left?” he said.

Delegate Don Merricks, R-Pittsylvania, served on the same panel. He said his constituents say they have already experienced the stigma in the form of a stagnant real estate market and difficulty in attracting workers. He doesn’t want to see uranium become the area’s dominant industry, in the way coal has been for Southwest Virginia.

“I think it’s going to be hard to overcome that when you want to attract other industries,” he said.

Cale Jaffe, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, said the debate boils down to different perspectives about the future and “competing visions for economic development.” He said Virginia should not hedge its bets on mining jobs that will take years to come as everyone slogs through the regulatory process.

“We should move forward on the opportunities we’ve got right now,” he said.


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