Senate version of Virginia uranium bill dies in committee

Jan. 31, 2013 @ 04:57 PM

Kerr Lake survived a potential major threat Thursday when a bill to end a three decades-old ban on uranium mining died in a Virginia Senate committee.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. John Watkins, asked for it to be stricken before the Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources could hear it. Reports indicate nine of 12 members in the 15-member committee opposed the measure.

The Virginia House of Delegates is considering a companion bill. Even if it made it out of the House, prospects of Senate approval are doubtful.

Kerr Lake is fed water through the Roanoke River Basin, an area that includes the proposed site of the mine known as Coles Hill. It is near Chatham, Va., about 50 miles from Henderson and Kerr Lake as the crow flies, in Pittsylvania County.

Virginia Uranium Inc. had hoped to mine the site, which was discovered in the late 1970s before uranium prices dropped. With the rise in prices came an interest to pursue operations, bringing jobs to south-central Virginia.

Virginia Uranium pumped thousands of dollars into the campaign coffers of several political candidates last fall.

The site is estimated at $7 billion with a 119-million pound deposit. Earlier this month, before the Virginia legislature reconvened, the Virginia Commission on Coal and Energy had recommended by 11-2 vote that lawmakers pass legislation establishing a statutory framework for uranium mining.

Opponents were concerned about uranium waste. Estimates say the site would have at least 28 million tons, which would remain radioactive for thousands of years. It would need to be contained indefinitely onsite.

The local groundwater sources and downstream drinking water sources, including Kerr Lake in Vance County, provide drinking water for more than 1.9 million people, including in the Virginia Beach area.

Scores of local government entities had offered resolutions against the ban in both Virginia and North Carolina. One of the most recent was from the Pittsylvania Board of Supervisors, which would have had final say on a special use permit for the mining.

The issue has drawn board interest, with the liberal-leaning Washington Post and the conservative leaning Heritage Foundation among those in agreement to lift the ban and begin mining.

If the state does approve uranium mining, federal regulations would also have to be met. Mining would not be expected to begin before 2017 at the earliest.

Contact the writer at awooten@hendersondispatch.com.