The question over who will fund a study on uranium mining has been resolved.
Del. Terry Kilgore, chairman of the Virginia Commission on Coal and Energy, said Virginia Uranium Inc. will pay for the study by the National Academy of Sciences.
The study, which is expected to take about 18 months, will cost an estimated $1.2 million, Kilgore said.
The Virginia Center for Coal and Energy Research at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg has agreed to serve as a repository for the funding.
Kilgore said a formal contract between Virginia Tech and the National Academy of Sciences should be signed soon, with the study beginning in about 30 days.
The National Academy of Sciences is part of the National Research Council, a respected institute that conducts research and advises government agencies.
It will help the commonwealth "determine whether uranium mining, milling, and processing can be undertaken in a manner that safeguards the environment, natural and historic resources, agricultural lands, and the health and well-being of its citizens."
According to Kilgore, the academy has assured Virginia Tech that private funding will not influence the study.
"I don't think we have anything to worry about," he said. "The National Academy has a great reputation for being fair and up front."
Kilgore explored other avenues to underwrite the study, including state funding, but said the money just wasn't there.
"I wish we had other funding opportunities, but in these tough economic times it was just hard to find," the delegate said.
Virginia Uranium offered to pay for the study when it first announced plans two years ago to explore mining uranium at Coles Hill, about six miles northeast of Chatham.
"Basically, that's what we've said all along," said chairman Walter Coles.
Coles doesn't see any conflict in having private industry fund the study.
"Groups do it all the time. States do it," he said. "They are scientists. Their reputation is at stake. It's too important."
Eloise Nenon of Chatham, a founding member of Southside Concerned Citizens, questioned the legitimacy of a study funded by the uranium industry.
"Generally speaking, the money behind something influences it," said Nenon, adding the National Academy of Sciences is "quite strongly pro-nuclear."
"This is a red flag," she said.
Nenon has little faith in a study.
"It ignores the people, it ignores the community, the history and traditions, and what's important to people here," she said.
"What's important for Virginia Uranium may not be what's important for citizens. Our life is a lot more than science."
Frank Benson of Gretna agreed.
"It's a Pandora's Box," said Benson, another member of Southside Concerned Citizens. "It's going to pollute the water, air and soil.
"We're going to lose businesses and farming. If they don't wake up, this is going to be a ghost town."
Katie Whitehead, chairman of the Dan River Basin Association Mining Task Force, said serious doubts remain about the study.
"We won't know if the National Academy of Sciences is willing to perform a study paid for solely by an interested party until someone representing Virginia sends the required letter formally requesting a study and officially identifying the funding source," she said.
"Only the National Research Council Governing Board has the authority to decide whether NAS does the study, and the board has not yet even considered the question."
Whitehead pointed out the academy's reputation depends on rigorous, thorough research, independence and objectivity, and on the avoidance of even the appearance of influence.
"The National Academies do not perform studies for private, for-profit corporations," she said.
"We don't know how the governing board will weigh the fact that the Virginia Coal and Energy Commission has looked for a year and found no one other than the uranium industry willing to support the study - if support means paying for it."
'Signed, sealed, delivered'
Kilgore said Virginia Uranium will fund the scientific study, but not an in-depth look at the socioeconomic impact of uranium mining.
A second study, which will address the effects of uranium mining on businesses, schools and the community, will be conducted by another organization and funded separately, the chairman said.
"We're hoping to get everything signed, sealed and delivered on the scientific, technical study," he said.
"As soon as we get this one nailed down, we plan to move on to the socioeconomic study."
Kilgore, who is from Scott County in far southwest Virginia, recently flew over Coles Hill on the way to a Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission meeting.
To satisfy his curiosity, the small plane landed in a field and Kilgore explored the site, one of the largest uranium deposit in the United States.
"I just wanted to visualize what we've been talking about," he said. "It's way out away from anything."
The Coal and Energy Commission's Subcommittee on Uranium Mining voted 8-2 to approve a final framework for the uranium mining study in May.
The panel, chaired by Del. Lee Ware of Powhatan, made public safety a top priority.
The study will examine the scientific, technical, environmental, human health and safety, and regulatory aspects of uranium mining, milling, and processing.
In particular, it will look at short- and long-term health and safety considerations from uranium mining, milling and processing.
It also will identify uranium mining "best practices" worldwide, review global and national uranium market trends.
The academy, however, will not offer a recommendation on whether uranium mining should be permitted.
That decision will be left to the General Assembly, which placed a moratorium on uranium mining in 1982.
The Coles Hill uranium deposit was discovered in the early 1980s by Marline Uranium Corp.
In 2007, the Coles and Bowen families formed Virginia Uranium Inc. in hopes of mining the uranium, which is worth between $8 billion and $10 billion.