Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Urgent Questions Remain Regarding the Two Uranium Studies

The mining study is shaping up to be one big expensive joke with potentially lethal consequences. Socio-economic aspects are getting short shrift and tailings containment, one of the gravest dangers of mining, will be ignored. Katie Whitehead makes a compelling argument for the inclusion of socio-economics here. SB

News reports regarding the work and responsibilities of the Uranium Mining Subcommittee do not begin to inform the public about the true status and complexity of the uranium study process. There may not be a market for such information, yet there is certainly a need. Urgent questions remain unanswered.

Contrary to some reports, the uranium mining study has not started. We need to remember, as well, that “the study” is now two studies – a technical study and a socio-economic study. The subcommittee is negotiating the technical study with the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). Before NAS can call for nominations for a study committee, both parties must agree on the scope of work, the NAS has to draw up a budget and timeline, and someone has to come up with money and sign a contract.

Subcommittee members have yet to discuss the equally important, complicated, and challenging socio-economic study.

Will there be a socio-economic study?

If a technical study is done, a socio-economic study should also be done.

Some people have gotten the impression that the Uranium Mining Subcommittee sees the socio-economic study as secondary and perhaps unnecessary. The Danville Register and Bee reported on May 13th that subcommittee member Sen. Phillip Puckett opposes conducting a socio-economic study if mining is found to be unsafe in the technical study: “If that is a ‘no,’ we don’t have to answer any more questions.”

One could make the same argument for the socio-economic study: if uranium mining is undesirable for social and economic reasons, we don’t have to know absolutely whether it is safe or not. Contrary to what we have been led to believe, the technical study will not make a final judgment on whether mining is safe or unsafe. A socio-economic study might provide greater clarity.

The stigma associated with uranium mining and tailings has real social and economic impacts, as does the volatility of the market for uranium. We need to understand how uranium mining might influence perception of a region for current residents, as well as for business executives, farm product consumers, families, students and their parents, retirees, tourists, and others contemplating coming to the area to live or to visit. We should look at available evidence about whether uranium mining harms or enhances a region’s character, quality of life, and economic well-being.

The only way to ensure that the socio-economic study is done and done adequately is to identify an independent and objective research institution, get budget estimates, and secure full funding for both studies before either study begins. This is not happening.

Who will do the socio-economic study? Will it be objective?

The Coal and Energy Commission chose as its advisor Dr. Michael Karmis, a world-renowned mining engineer and director of the Virginia Center for Coal and Energy Research (VCCER). Whether he is an appropriate advisor regarding a socio-economic study is a valid and important question that implies no disrespect.

Dr. Karmis, in his rough draft scope for the socio-economic study, recommended a site- and region-specific study, not a study anticipating statewide consequences of lifting the moratorium. He envisioned a smaller, shorter, less complicated, less costly study than the technical study. He also advised that the National Academy of Sciences would not likely be interested in undertaking the socio-economic study. We should ask the academy. The National Academy of Sciences does socio-economic studies and some original research and is, of course, known for its independence and objectivity.

The NAS might well be willing to study by analogy how introduction of a controversial industry can influence the perception of a region and its economy. The academy is also able to study the potential for boom-bust cycles in mining communities and their effects on regional economic activity and quality of life. Real-life examples of uranium mining communities and regions with analogous industrial activities can help researchers tell us what we might be facing.

An alternative approach would specifically identify businesses, institutions, schools, government bodies, and other entities in a region of interest and study in detail how each might be affected by the potentially disruptive introduction of a stigmatized industry. Two entities have been named in private conversations as perhaps being capable of this sort of socio-economic study, but one of these institutions may have been suggested by industry lobbyists after prior contact with researchers. Such contact could inappropriately influence the framing of a study and compromise the independence of the research.

Who is paying for the studies? Who should pay? Will adequate funds be available?

According to various members of the Uranium Mining Subcommittee, Del. Terry Kilgore, Chairman of the Virginia Coal and Energy Commission and ex-officio subcommittee member, is responsible for finding money to do the two studies. Del. Kilgore listened to the May 21st subcommittee meeting by telephone. He did not participate in discussion or respond to questions or comments about funding. Kilgore has asked for donations to pay for the studies. No other information is publicly available.

The National Academy of Sciences cannot perform a study directly for a private industry.

The Virginia General Assembly has not budgeted money for a study. The Virginia Coal and Energy Commission cannot accept contributions to spend on a study.

The Virginia Citizens have emphasized to the subcommittee the need to consider the whole study process, secure appropriate funding, and ensure independent experts give adequate time and attention to both studies. Even the best study process does not ensure a sound public policy decision. The current process raises serious doubts.

Katie Whitehead of Chatham is chairman of the Dan River Basin Association Mining Task Force.

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