Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Richmond drops the ball, not the cash

By Published by The Editorial Board

Published: September 8, 2009

Virginia’s study of uranium mining finally has the funding it needs to move forward, thanks to the only entity that ever offered to pay for it.

Virginia Uranium Inc. Chairman Walter Coles Sr. long ago said his company would pay for the state study. With the commonwealth unwilling to fund the study and no one else waving their checkbook around, VUI money was the only way to move this issue forward.

In a better world, the state government should have paid for the study. The state’s moratorium keeps VUI from mining what’s believed to be the largest untapped uranium deposit in the United States. If the study sways the General Assembly to lift the moratorium, it will be state agencies that will assume part of the responsibility for writing mining and milling regulations and ensuring that they’re enforced.

But most of all, it was in the state’s interest to allow the National Academy of Sciences to do its work without mining opponents from accusing the NAS of somehow being in the pocket of Virginia Uranium Inc.

That argument is a slap in the face of the scientists, researchers and others who will be involved in this project. It will no doubt plan a fertile seed of future debate, doubt and consternation. The state has done a cheap and foolish thing.

Compounding the problem is the NAS study probably won’t be a slam-dunk for either side. Both camps are likely to complain that certain things weren’t checked out by the National Academy of Sciences or that certain people weren’t interviewed or that certain places weren’t visited.

Even conditional conclusions — if this is done, then that will happen — are likely to be scrutinized right down to the syllable.

Given the stakes for both sides, we could be looking at years of argument that doesn’t convince anybody of anything — including majorities of the House of Delegates and state Senate.

Additionally, many local people supported an outside study of uranium mining and milling and are counting on the study’s results to inform their final choice on the matter.

For its part, an NAS spokeswoman said her agency doesn’t have direct contact with the companies it studies.

“We would not work directly with them (VUI),” Jennifer Walsh said. “We would only go to them with questions and concerns. They would have no say-so in the study.”

Is that the end of it? Probably not. Should it be the end of it? Probably so. But the problem could have been avoided if the state of Virginia didn’t saddle the National Academy of Sciences with this controversy.

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