Thursday, April 30, 2009

Public forum to outline community's right to block uranium mining

By TIM DAVIS/Star-Tribune Editor
Thursday, April 30, 2009 12:35 PM EDT

The anti-uranium group The Alliance will sponsor a public forum for residents and elected officials titled "Who Decides Whether Southside Virginia will be Sacrificed for Uranium Mining?" Friday, May 1, at 7 p.m. at Chatham High School.

The forum will be presented by the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, a Pennsylvania-based community rights organization.

"Who decides whether the people of Southside Virginia should have to endure uranium mining and its catastrophic impacts on human health and our environment - the citizens or the corporate officers of Virginia Uranium Inc., enabled by the Virginia legislature?" said Shireen Parsons, an organizer for the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund and adviser to The Alliance.

"That's the question that will be posed to the citizens and elected officials of the Southside communities that would be directly affected by the proposed mine in Pittsylvania County," she said.

Presenting the case for decision-making by the people will be attorney Thomas Linzey, founder and executive director of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund and Mari Margill, associate director of the Legal Defense Fund.

Since 1995, the Legal Defense Fund has assisted community groups and local governments in Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Maine, Washington state and Virginia draft municipal ordinances that prohibit corporate activities determined by the citizens to be a threat to their health, safety, environment and quality of life.

Ordinances have tackled issues including mining, ground water withdrawals, factory farms, land application of sewage sludge and corporate waste dumping.

Last year, Halifax became the first town in Virginia to adopt a chemical trespass ordinance aimed at uranium mining.

Chatham considered a similar ordinance, but abandoned the idea following an attorney general's opinion that the law is unconstitutional.

Friday night's presentation will bring the necessity for action to the forefront, said Parsons, who lives in Christiansburg.

"Gathering data, writing to legislators, petitioning regulatory agencies, testifying at public hearings - these are not self-governing activities, but grievance procedures," she said.

Participants will learn about the origins of rights-based community organizing, about the structure of law - including Dillon's Rule - that prohibits communities from saying "no," what has been achieved in Virginia and in other states, and the next steps in rights-based organizing in Pittsylvania County and other Southside communities.

"There is no hero waiting in the wings to save our communities from ruin," said Parsons. "We are the ones we have been waiting for. The time is now. "

The Alliance is led by Gregg Vickrey, who previously served as chairman of the Chatham-Pittsylvania County Chapter of Southside Concerned Citizens.

Southside Concerned Citizens was formed 30 years ago when one of the largest uranium deposits in the United States was discovered in Pittsylvania County.

The Coles Hill deposit, about six miles northeast of Chatham, is worth between $8 billion and $10 billion.

Three years ago, the Coles and Bowen families, who own the land and ore, formed Virginia Uranium Inc. to explore the possibility of mining uranium.

Virginia has had a moratorium on uranium mining since 1982.

The Virginia Coal and Energy Commission recently agreed to study the dangers and benefits of uranium mining.

The study, which is just getting under way, is expected to take about two years.

Last week, The Alliance launched a petition aimed at forcing the Pittsylvania County Board of Supervisors to ban uranium mining.

If supervisors refuse, they will have rendered themselves "illegitimate" under the Virginia Constitution, the petition states.

The Alliance then plans to ask residents to elect 11 representatives to draft a constitution for the county that bans uranium mining while recognizing the right to community self-government.

County residents would be asked to ratify the constitution.

If supervisors fail to adopt the constitution, it would "automatically become the new governing law of the county" and a mandate for new elected representatives.

"This is democracy built from the ground up," said Parsons.

The Alliance hopes to get a majority of county residents - at least 30,000 - to sign the petition before presenting it to supervisors.

County Administrator Dan Sleeper called the petition misguided and said there is no such thing as a county constitution.

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