The News & Record / May 25, 2009More than a year after first being proposed, a scientific study of uranium mining in Virginia will soon get under way.
The Virginia Coal and Energy Commission’s Uranium Mining Subcommittee on Thursday adopted a 11-point “Statement of Task” that set formal terms for a review of the environmental, economic and safety impacts of the proposed Coles Hill uranium mine near Chatham. The study, to be conducted by the National Research Council, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences, is expected to take two years.
The subcommittee vote broke a political logjam that had held up movement on a study, the first step in possibly overturning Virginia’s 25-year moratorium on uranium mining. After a study bill died in the General Assembly last year, legislators asked the Coal and Energy Commission to take over the task of setting the parameters for a review. Left unanswered after Thursday’s vote is who will pay for the study, expected to cost in excess of $1 million.
Advocates say the Coles Hill project will pump billions of dollars into the Southside economy and create hundreds of new jobs, but opponents warn that uranium mining will have devastating environmental and health impacts in the region and across Virginia.
About 100 people, mostly mining opponents, attended the subcommittee meeting in Richmond to express their concerns to legislators who make up the subcommittee. After listening to their input, the panel reordered the list of tasks to be presented to the National Research Council, asking that the group make public safety and health impacts the top priority of its study.
Previously, the lead topic on the subcommittee’s 11-point priority list was an analysis of global and national uranium market trends. But speakers implored members to make their first order of business determining whether mining can be done safely, without harm to Pittsylvania County and other parts of the Commonwealth.
“Your decisions will affect the citizens of Pittsylvania County and the citizens of Virginia forever,” said Marshall Ecker, a Pittsylvania County supervisor who spoke at the meeting.
The subcommittee made a number of other changes defining the scope of the study, including adoption of a motion by Del. Watkins Abbitt (R-Appomattox) to review the public health and safety impacts of uranium mining operations similar to what is being proposed in Pittsylvania County.
However, the subcommittee rejected an Abbitt motion to study methods for storing uranium tailings, designed to keep mining wastes from leaking into nearby water sources.
Abbitt and Del. William Janis dissented in the 8-2 vote adopting the framework for the study. Janis opposed the motion after missing most of the debate due to a scheduling conflict. Abbitt said he could not vote for the study after his motion to analyze methods for tailings storage failed.
Reaction to the subcommittee’s decision was mixed. Patrick Wales, chief geologist for Virginia Uranium, Inc., which is seeking to mine the Coles Hill site, told subcommittee members Thursday that VUI is committed to mining uranium only if can be shown that it can be done safely.
In a follow-up interview with the Danville Register & Bee, Wales said VUI was “very gratified” after Thursday’s vote. “An independent study of uranium mining and milling has been the one thing we’ve been proposing since the inception of our company,” Wales told the newspaper.
Katie Whitehead, chair of the Dan River Basin Association Mining Task Force, issued a follow-up statement saying that “(t)he best news of the day was unanimous approval of Del. Abbitt’s amendment” to study uranium deposits elsewhere in the world similar to the Pittsylvania County site.
Whitehead also said it was “noteworthy” that “subcommittee members expressed concern about potential government ownership and financial liability after closure of a mining operation or in the event of a business failure,” although members did not include that concern in the written list of study topics.
An outspoken opponent of uranium mining, Karen Maute of Chatham, said she skipped the subcommittee meeting because “everything I’ve read ... says this just brings us a step closer to mining, and I believe that.
“I think it’s being used as a way to legitimize uranium mining in Virginia,” said Maute. “It’s stupid to even consider mining uranium in Virginia ... The facts are out there that this is not going to beneficial — it’s not been beneficial anywhere it’s been done,” she said.