Tuesday, September 22, 2009

State study? State money

By Katie Whitehead
Published: September 20, 2009

The Virginia General Assembly’s failure to secure state and other non-industry funding is jeopardizing the credibility — and perhaps the execution — of its proposed uranium mining studies. A study paid for by Virginia Uranium Inc. does nothing to avoid the appearance of influence.

After a uranium mining study bill failed in the General Assembly last year, the Virginia Coal and Energy Commission, chaired by Del. Terry Kilgore, voted in November to initiate its own uranium studies. The commission enlisted the assistance of the Virginia Center for Coal and Energy Research, headed by Dr. Michael Karmis, a mining engineer. Kilgore appointed a Uranium Mining Subcommittee with Del. Lee Ware as chairman.

The subcommittee should question not just whether uranium mining and milling might be done safely, but also whether introducing this stigmatized industry into our communities is a good idea. Even if uranium can be mined safely under certain conditions, it still might not be an industry we want in Virginia.

In spring meetings, the subcommittee focused on defining a technical study that it wants the National Research Council of The National Academies to undertake. (The National Research Council is the staffing organization for the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine.)

The subcommittee postponed discussion of a separate socioeconomic study, arguably the more important of the two studies. Kilgore recently wrote to NRC to request the technical study.

As proposed, the technical study will attempt to address the safety question by gathering available evidence regarding whether uranium mining, milling and tailings storage are being done safely elsewhere under conditions comparable to those in Virginia. The socioeconomic study has yet to be defined, funded or negotiated with any research organization. It should address the desirability question by providing real-life evidence about how introducing the uranium industry affects the long-term health, economic well-being and quality of life in communities. Currently, the commission’s failure to secure state and other non-industry funding is jeopardizing both studies.

In the absence of other funding, VUI has offered to pay the entire cost of the technical study (estimated $1.2 million to $1.4 million). The funds would be contributed to the Virginia Center for Coal and Energy Research, which would then pass them on to NRC. This indirectness may conform to the written policy of NRC and reduce the appearance of influence to some eyes, but it does nothing to change the fact that an interested party — a private, for-profit corporation with something to gain from the results of the study — is paying NRC for it. It’s not a pretty picture.

Many people have assumed that NRC will definitely do the technical study. NRC has expressed interest in the study and, according to its policy, may accept the proposed funding. Will NRC in fact accept?

The group that will decide is the National Research Council Governing Board, which is responsible for safeguarding the unique reputation of NRC for independent, unbiased scientific research. The members of the governing board will have to determine whether accepting 100 percent of the funding — however indirectly — from a uranium mining company is consistent with that responsibility. We don’t know how they will weigh the fact that no one other than a uranium company has demonstrated support for the study by offering funding.

No one knows how the governing board will ultimately respond to Kilgore’s request. They’ve not officially discussed it, much less made a decision.

One might argue that the National Research Council is beyond reproach and that one needn’t care who pays NRC to do a study — that one can be sure NRC will be objective and independent regardless. NRC has a hard-earned reputation for thoughtful, thorough, independent, unbiased research. This reputation depends not only on avoiding actual influence by parties that might profit from NRC study results, but also on avoiding even the appearance of such influence.

If an unbiased assessment of the safety and the desirability of uranium mining is of value to the commonwealth, then the commonwealth should be willing to pay for it, at least in significant part. The commission should request funding from the legislature to pay the majority — if not all — of the cost of both the technical study and the socioeconomic study. Securing public financial support would confirm that Virginians want this research, ensure that both studies go forward and increase confidence that the studies will fairly evaluate all available evidence.

* Whitehead lives in Pittsylvania County and chairs the Dan River Basin Association Mining Task Force. Contact her at mkwhitehead@yahoo.com


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