Virginia Working Group reviews report on uranium mining

Star Tribune – December 19, 2012

By Tim Davis, Star-Tribune

The Uranium Working Group presented its recommendations to the Virginia Commission on Coal and Energy and the Uranium Mining Subcommittee on Dec. 11 at the Olde Dominion Agricultural Complex in Chatham, Va.

About 300 people attended the meeting.

“We are grateful for the work they have done in looking into this very important question,” said the subcommittee’s chairman, Del. Lee Ware of Powhatan, Va.

The subcommittee and commission did not take any action on the group’s recommendations.

Virginia Del. Terry Kilgore, who chairs the coal and energy group, said the commission will discuss the report and decide whether to make a recommendation at its meeting in Richmond Jan. 7.

Last week’s meeting included presentations by both the Uranium Working Group and Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the federal agency that would most likely oversee uranium milling.

Cathie France, deputy director of the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals, and Energy, which would regulate uranium mining, said the Uranium Working Group didn’t consider just Pittsylvania County.

“We didn’t look at one particular site,” she said. “This is a statewide look at what uranium mining regulations might look like.”

Virginia Uranium Inc. hopes to mine a huge uranium deposit about six miles northeast of Chatham.

Discovered in the late 1970s, the Coles Hill uranium deposit is believed to be one of the largest in the United States and is worth an estimated $7 billion.

Opponents, including citizens and government groups in Warren County and surrounding areas, have raised concerns about possible contamination of the local water supply if the ban on uranium mining is lifted.

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell appointed the Uranium Working Group last February. The group included representatives from the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals, and Energy, Department of Environmental Quality, and Department of Health.

All three state agencies would have key roles in drafting and enforcing regulations on uranium mining and milling if the General Assembly lifts the moratorium, which has been in place since 1982.

France described the Uranium Working Group’s report as a “fact-finding” mission.

“It was not our job to make a recommendation on the moratorium,” she said.

Lawmakers will likely face that decision when they return to Richmond next month.

Virginia Sen. John C. Watkins (R-Midlothian) said he plans to introduce legislation to lift the ban on uranium mining.

“Uranium mining presents a unique opportunity to create jobs and economic development while contributing to our nation’s energy independence,” said Watkins, a longtime member of the Coal and Energy Commission and vice chairman of the Uranium Mining Subcommittee. “Today uranium mining is done safely around the world and Virginia is capable of mining it safely, too.”

The Uranium Working Group’s report provides a comprehensive checklist for drafting new laws and regulations for uranium mining. The report is available at

Regulations and permitting could take as long as five years and would cost millions, but the commonwealth could recover the costs in fees, licenses and taxes.

“Even if we lift the moratorium, there is no guarantee there is going to be a license,” Kilgore said.

State and federal officials answered written questions from the audience, but the commission and subcommittee did not allow public comment.

Questions ranged from potential water and air pollution and long-term storage of radioactive waste to safeguards for farming and public health and safety.

Opponents don’t believe uranium can be mined safely and want legislators to impose a permanent ban.

“Information, reports, and studies have clearly illustrated the real and potential negative impacts that uranium mining, milling and disposal of radioactive, hazardous wastes will have to the citizens of Virginia and North Carolina,” Piedmont Residents in Defense of the Environment said in a statement.

Andrew Lester, president of the Roanoke River Basin Association, said lifting the moratorium would expose Virginia to a wide range of economic uncertainties and liabilities.

“The UWG report contains absolutely no evidence that the proposed regulatory framework will succeed in protecting Virginia’s public health and welfare, as well as our waterways, from radioactive contamination and other hazards associated with uranium mining, processing and storage of radioactive waste,” Lester said.

Tim Davis is editor of the Star-Tribune in Chatham, Va.



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