By John Crane
Published: March 14, 2009
Delegate Lee Ware, head of the subcommittee charged with studying the benefits and dangers of uranium mining in the commonwealth, holds no illusions about the immensity of his task.
“I felt honored, but I also felt the gravity of it,” Ware, R-Powhatan, said of being picked last fall to chair the Virginia Coal and Energy Commission’s Uranium Mining Subcommittee.
The 11-member subcommittee formed after the commission unanimously approved a study to determine whether uranium can be mined and milled safely in the state. Virginia Uranium Inc. seeks to extract the element from Coles Hill, a 119-million-pound ore deposit about six miles northeast of Chatham. Virginia has had a moratorium on uranium mining since the early 1980s.
Michael Karmis, director of the Virginia Center for Coal and Energy Research, will present a proposal for the study’s scope during the subcommittee’s meeting March 24 in Richmond. Ware and the rest of the subcommittee hope the National Academy of Sciences will perform the study, which would take up to two years.
Local legislators said they trust Ware, who said he holds an agrarian philosophy emphasizing the integrity of the land and water, to oversee a fair study.
“I feel very comfortable that he’s heading up that subcommittee,” Delegate Donald Merricks, R-Pittsylvania County, said.
‘Fair-minded and conscientious’
Ware’s colleagues, including one on the subcommittee, describe a careful, reasoned man who listens to all sides of an issue.
Delegate Kristen Amundson, a Democrat who serves on the subcommittee, said she and Ware disagree on many issues. Still, Amundson described him as straightforward and said he is a good choice to lead the subcommittee.
“He does what he says he’s going to do,” Amundson, who represents Mount Vernon, said.
Ware is respectful of the subcommittee’s process and “he doesn’t have an axe to grind,” she said.
Sen. Robert Hurt, R-Chatham, agrees.
“He’s an extremely fair-minded and conscientious legislator,” Hurt said.
While Ware’s district is in Powhatan and Chesterfield counties near Richmond, uranium mining affects all Virginians, not just those in Pittsylvania County, Hurt said.
“He’s someone who cares about the same things those of us in Pittsylvania County are concerned about,” the freshman senator said.
‘A Southerner by inclination’
Ware, a schoolteacher and Massachusetts native, carries an ardent appreciation for the commonwealth and the South.
He grew up in Lunenburg before attending Wheaton College in Illinois, where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in history and literature in 1974. It was a newspaper job that brought him to Powhatan in 1981, where he worked for the Powhatan Gazette until 1985. Ironically, he once covered a symposium on the disposition of uranium as a journalist.
He found his calling in 1985 when he became a teacher in his adopted South.
“I found myself a Southerner by inclination,” said Ware, 56, who teaches high school history at Blessed Sacrament Huguenot parochial school in Powhatan. “I felt like I’d found home.”
Ware loved the richness of Southern life, but it also suited his conservative political sensibility. He said he found the region more attuned to what the Founding Fathers meant when they framed the Constitution. Ware adheres to the Republican Party’s core values of limited government, fiscal restraint and austere interpretation of the Constitution.
“It’s a great place to be from that standpoint,” Ware said of the commonwealth.
He served two terms as a Powhatan County supervisor starting in 1988 and successfully ran for delegate in 1998, where he has served since. Ware’s love of Virginia’s history and a desire to play a part in molding its future compelled him to enter public service.
“What I hope to do is to have a share in building on Virginia’s past,” he said.
A nature lover?
Ware, a married father and grandfather, hopes for a better place for his four children and four grandchildren. His wife, Kathy, is an accountant.
He has served on the Virginia Coal and Energy Commission for most of his tenure and also sits on the House Commerce and Labor Committee and Finance Committee and is vice chair of the Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources Committee.
Delegate Danny Marshall, R-Danville, serves on two of those committees with Ware. Marshall said Ware is insightful and deliberate in his reasoning.
“I’ve found Ware to be very thoughtful,” Marshall said. “He’s not quick to make snap judgments.”
Though he serves on the Coal and Energy Commission, Ware says he has a “green streak” in him.
“I don’t shrink from the term ‘conservationist,’” he said. “A community is built from the land that it exists on.”
Virginia’s core industries have been farming and timbering, which require stewardship of the land, he said. The political left frequently accuses Ware’s party of flippancy about the environment but “they forget that Teddy Roosevelt started the (National) Park system,” he said.
However, Ware said there has been a need to explore all energy options, including alternative sources, given the rise in energy prices and the nation’s dependency on other countries for oil. His agrarian outlook also recognizes the need to consider the land’s resource options, he said.
Gregg Vickrey, a founder of the Alliance, which opposes uranium mining at Coles Hill, said his impression of Ware is that he is pro-mining since he serves on the Coal and Energy Commission.
“They exist to facilitate mining,” Vickrey said.
The study will not be an impartial look into whether uranium mining can be done safely in Pittsylvania County, he said. Opponents of Coles Hill exploration say a mining-and-milling operation would bring dire environmental and public-health consequences.
Patrick Wales, geologist and spokesman for VUI, said he doesn’t know Ware but has heard he is a fair person.
“It’s what we need to move this study forward,” Wales said.
Ware said if the study finds uranium mining unsafe, he will not recommend the practice.
“As chairman, I want to moderate a fair and open process and let the facts lead us where they will,” Ware said.
Ware said he has not taken donations from Virginia Uranium since being appointed to the subcommittee. A search of the Virginia Public Access Project’s Web site showed no donations from VUI to Ware in 2008. This year’s figures were not available.
At least two of the subcommittee’s members, Sen. Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach, and Sen. John Watkins, R-Midlothian, have taken contributions from VUI. Ware said donations are just part of the process.
“In modern democratic politics, you’ve got to be a wealthy individual to run and not take any donations,” he said.
Ware said suspicion among mining opponents that the study will be tilted in favor of uranium interests is inaccurate.
Merricks, whose House district includes Pittsylvania County, agrees.
“I think he’s intelligent and astute enough to take the citizens’ interests at heart,” Merricks said.