Wednesday, March 25, 2009

SAFETY FIRST: State Panel Frames Virginia Uranium Mining Study

By STEVE SZKOTAK • Associated Press Writer • March 24, 2009

RICHMOND — Virginia took a small step Tuesday toward tapping the richest U.S. deposit of uranium as a state panel tentatively approved the framework of a scientific study.

Despite the incremental step, the action by a subcommittee of the Virginia Commission on Coal and Energy drew two dozen speakers, many of them residents of Pittsylvania County, where the deposit is located hours south of Richmond.

Speakers on both sides of the issue said safety should be the No. 1 priority of the study and that the rural region’s double-digit unemployment should not sway a scientific analysis of the impact of mining.

“I think our first charge is: can it be done safely,” said Del. Watkins M. Abbitt, an independent from Appomattox and a member of the subcommittee. “We’ve got to decide first whether it’s safe to do.”

Any decision to lift a 1980s-vintage ban would likely be years away. The proposed independent study could take 1 1/2 years, then the General Assembly would have to approve the mining. The legislature last year refused to even study the idea.

Virginia Uranium Inc. has proposed tapping the 119-million-pound deposit located beneath 3,000 acres near the North Carolina border in Southside Virginia. The deposit is believed to be the largest deposit in the nation, with a value estimated anywhere from $7 billion to $10 billion.

The U.S. is amid what some call a “nuclear renaissance” as the world looks to more climate-friendly fuels.

The speakers who attended Tuesday’s hearing voiced concerns that a mining operation could foul streams, produce toxic tailings or depress property values. Children, farmers and retirees spoke.

Tom Zoellner, the author of “Uranium: War, Energy and the Rock That Shaped the World,” said in an interview with The Associated Press after the meeting that uranium mining is much safer than it used to be.

Still, he said, “No method is perfect and all have the potential, if done carelessly, to leave permanent scars on the land, both visible and invisible.”

The panel gave tenative approval Tuesday of a study approach to examine environmental, health and other issues related to mining.

The outline was developed by Michael Karmis, director of Virginia Tech’s Coal and Energy Research Center. He would serve as a go-between with the National Research Council, which is affiliated with the National Academy of Sciences.

“We want to make this based on reliable scientific data, not myth folklore, legend, fear or hysteria,” said Del. Bill Janis, R-Henrico and a member of the panel.

First, however, the state must find a funding source for the study, which Del. R. Lee Ware, R-Powhatan and the chairman of the subcommittee, put at seven figures.

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