Friday, May 22, 2009

Uranium Safety Priority Leaves Doubts

By John Crane

Published: May 22, 2009

The Uranium Mining Subcommittee’s approval Thursday of the final draft of a study to determine whether uranium can be mined and milled safely in Virginia drew a variety of reactions from local opponents and a supporter.

“We’re very gratified,” Patrick Wales, geologist and spokesman for Virginia Uranium Inc., said Friday. “An independent study of uranium mining and milling has been the one thing we’ve been proposing since the inception of our company.”

VUI seeks to mine and mill a 119-million-pound uranium ore deposit at Coles Hill, about six miles northeast of Chatham. Virginia currently has a moratorium on uranium mining.

Among changes the subcommittee brought to the final draft of the 11-item statement of task was to move the public health and safety aspect of the study from the No. 7 spot to No. 1. The previous first priority of the study was a review of global and national uranium market trends. The subcommittee also added language that calls for analysis of mining impacts on public health and safety in areas with comparable geologic, hydrologic, climatic characteristics and population density to Pittsylvania County.

A request that study language include methods for tailings management to prevent or mitigate leakage was nixed. However, Delegate Lee Ware, the subcommittee’s chairman, said after the meeting that Michael Karmis, director of Virginia Tech’s Center for Coal and Energy Research, has assured him that tailings will be included in the study. Karmis will take the approved final draft to the National Research Council and the study will begin, Ware said. The study will take about two years.

Wales said that public health and safety has “always been our No. 1 priority.” Wales, who attended the meeting, told the subcommittee he hopes “it will follow scientific evidence where it leads us.” VUI also hopes the study’s results will include recommendations on how mining and milling can be done safely in a manner that protects public health and the environment, Wales told the subcommittee.

“This is our home, our community,” Wales said Friday.

But not everyone was pleased with Thursday’s vote. Mining opponent Karen Maute, who did not attend Thursday’s meeting, said Friday she wasn’t surprised by the decision and that elevating public health and safety to the top of the list makes no difference.

“You’ve got seven rocks in your pocket and you take one out first, it’s still a rock,” Maute said.

Also, there’s no guarantee that the study will provide a clear answer to the question of mining’s safety, Maute said. She questions the credibility of a study that arose from a circumvention of the legislative process. A proposal for a study in the General Assembly, Senate Bill 525, was killed in a House of Delegates subcommittee in early 2008. But the following November, the Virginia Coal and Energy Commission approved the study and tasked the Uranium Mining Subcommittee with overseeing it.

“The whole thing is bogus,” she said.

Although public health and safety now head the list, it’s not enough, said Eloise Nenon, a board member of Southside Concerned Citizens, which opposes uranium mining.

“I’m still concerned that they are ignoring the people,” Nenon said.

Health is an important part, Nenon said, but the study still needs to examine the economic impacts of mining and milling on the community, its effects on agriculture and the people who have lived and farmed here for several generations. In addition, taxpayers will be left with the bill to clean up the site, she said.

Nenon said she was disappointed that the subcommittee didn’t wait 60 days to allow more public comment before making a decision on the study. Delegate Danny Marshall, R-Danville, had asked the subcommittee to post Thursday’s citizen input on its Web site and wait 60 days before deciding whether to approve the study.

“There needs to be more time to allow for more public input,” she said.

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