By Rex Springston
Published: May 22, 2009
A study of uranium mining in Virginia is moving forward, to the dismay of some mining opponents.
A subcommittee of the Virginia Commission on Coal and Energy approved the study yesterday after fine-tuning the issues to be studied.
The study arises from a proposal by Virginia Uranium Inc. to mine uranium in Pittsylvania County in south-central Virginia.
During a meeting in the General Assembly Building, opponents told the panel that mining could cause air and water pollution and turn a pastoral landscape ugly.
"We will be left with a radioactive open pit," said Georgie Stuart of Chatham.
But Patrick Wales of Danville, a Virginia Uranium geologist, said he hoped the study would show how to mine uranium "in a way that protects the health of our neighbors, protects our environment and brings hundreds of well-paying jobs to our region."
Some opponents asked the panel to vote against the study, hoping that would kill the mining proposal.
But state Sen. John Watkins, R-Powhatan, a member of the subcommittee, said approval of the study did not mean approval of mining in Pittsylvania.
"That decision is a long way down the road," Watkins said.
Legislators simply need the study to get information that would help them make a decision, Watkins said.
The panel made clear that one of the most important issues they want studied is mining's effects on people's health.
The study also will investigate the safest ways to mine uranium; review mining regulations; identify pollution issues; and delve into effects on ecosystems, among other things.
The panel denied a request by Del. Watkins M. Abbitt Jr., I-Appomattox, to study how water pollution might be caused and prevented.
Del. Lee R. Ware Jr., the Powhatan County Republican who is chairman of the subcommittee, said he felt Abbitt's request was unnecessary because the study's scope already included that issue.
The study will be conducted by the National Research Council, the operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences, a respected institute that advises government agencies.
The study could cost $1.5 million and last about 18 months. It was unclear yesterday how the study would be funded.
Virginia Uranium, formed by Pittsylvania landowners, says 119 million pounds of the ore, worth about $8 billion, lie underground near Chatham, about 145 miles southwest of Richmond.
Uranium is used to fuel nuclear power plants. Virginia has banned uranium mining since the 1982.
Officials in Hampton Roads also have expressed concerns about the mining. Much of the water serving Virginia Beach, Norfolk and Chesapeake comes from Lake Gaston, which lies downstream from the proposed mine.