Wednesday, March 25, 2009 3:56 AM
(Source: Richmond Times-Dispatch)By Jeff E. Schapiro, Richmond Times-Dispatch, Va.
Mar. 25--A Virginia panel is giving the go-ahead to a study on opening the state to uranium mining and likely bankrolled by the industry -- raising fears that the research will be weighted in favor of proponents.
A subcommittee of the Coal and Energy Commission yesterday approved a tentative outline of the study by the National Academy of Science, which would focus on safety, environmental and health concerns. A separate examination of the financial and economic impact of mining also is planned.
Uranium mining has been illegal in Virginia since 1982, but with the push for alternatives to oil and coal, two Southside families want to extract in rural Pittsylvania County the nation's largest untapped lode of uranium. Five lobbying firms are pressing the General Assembly to lift the ban.
Because lawmakers from the largely agricultural region blocked a statefinanced study in 2008, fearing it as a first step toward ending the moratorium, the two families' firm, Virginia Uranium Inc., is offering to pay upward of $1 million for the inquiry.
Opponents are refusing to contribute to the cost of the study.
The green light for the study comes as the uranium industry is buffeted by an uncertain economy that is pushing down prices and drying up financing for the construction of nuclear plants powered by the ore.
Walter Coles Sr., Virginia Uranium's chairman, said in an interview that company financing of the 1 1/2 - to two-year study is potential ammunition for mine foes, described by Mick Mastilovic, company vice president, as "the mobocracy."
Coles, whose company has raised $19 million for the project from a Canadian energy firm, hedge funds and local investors, said of the study, "You're damned if you do and damned if you don't."
Joseph R. Stanley III, an environmental analyst for the Virginia Interfaith Center, which is helping to organize resistance to a Pittsylvania mine, said allowing industry to pay for the study means "the perception that [it] would be skewed would exist."
But Michael E. Karmis, director of Virginia Tech's coal and energy research center and the state panel's liaison to the National Academy of Science, said the academy is "totally independent" and its work is "based solely on technical science."
Chartered by Congress in 1863 on the urging of President Abraham Lincoln, the academy largely conducts research for federal agencies, though it also does work for states, foundations and private industry.
On its Web site, the academy says it provides "independent advice," and that its "external sponsors have no control over the conduct of a study" once the budget and outline for research are finalized. ------
Contact Jeff E. Schapiro at (804) 649-6814 or firstname.lastname@example.org.