Uranium Working Group releases report
RICHMOND — A multi-agency group studying the possibility of uranium mining in Virginia issued a dense report Friday to guide the General Assembly if it decides to end the state's 30-year ban on the mining of the radioactive ore.
The highly technical report by the Uranium Working Group was delivered to Gov. Bob McDonnell, who in turn sent it along to legislators. The report does not make a recommendation on the mining ban.
Virginia has had a moratorium on uranium mining since 1982. But a mining company is lobbying to have the General Assembly lift the ban so it can tap a 119-million-pound deposit in Pittsylvania County along the North Carolina line. Full-fledged uranium mining has never occurred east of the Mississippi.
Virginia Uranium Inc., based in Chatham, has said uranium mining and milling — the separation of rock from the ore — can be conducted safely. The so-called Coles Hill site is the largest known uranium deposit in the U.S. and one of the largest in the world. The company values it at $7 billion.
The company said the report made it clear mining can be done with "robust regulations" to ensure the safety of the public, workers and the environment.
"The report leaves no doubt that our regulatory agencies are capable of effectively and safely regulating uranium mining," Patrick Wales, the company's project manager, said in a statement. With the report completed and other studies already in hand, he added, legislators should lift the 1982 ban and draw up a regulatory program.
Cale Jaffe of the Southern Environmental Law Center said Virginia Uranium was getting ahead of itself. He said the tide has turned on the question of uranium mining with several statewide groups already backing the continuation of the ban. The Virginia Farm Bureau Federation this week said the ban should stick, joining two statewide municipal groups that came to the same conclusion.
Jaffe, a senior attorney with the SELC, said the bureaucracy of regulating mining is "a hypothetical question that we haven't gotten to yet." He added, "We're deciding the public policy question and the consensus is moving to maintaining the ban."
The SELC and other opponents contend Virginia's wet, hurricane-susceptible climate is poorly suited for a mining industry that typically has been in the arid West.
"I understand this issue is critically important to many Virginians, and that it raises appropriate concern among many in the vicinity of Coles Hill and beyond," McDonnell said. "I believe it is crucially important that all voices be heard in the decision-making process ahead."
McDonnell said he will meet with representatives of both sides before deciding whether he will make a recommendation on the ban. He said he has formed "no prior opinion" on the matter.
"As I have previously noted, the overriding consideration is whether uranium mining and milling can be conducted with a high degree of public safety, and whether suitable assurances can be given that the air, water, health and well-being of the citizens will be protected," McDonnell said.
McDonnell created the working group in January after he asked the General Assembly to delay any action on the ban in the 2012 session. The issue appears headed to the 2013 session.
The working group included representatives from the state Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy, the Department of Environmental Quality and the Department of Health. The 125-page report examines the regulatory structure that would be required to oversee uranium mining, various public health issues and the long-term storage of radioactive-laced rock that would be stored on site for generations.
To illustrate the complexity of the subject, the report explains the meaning in more than two pages of acronyms that are peppered through its pages. Many passages contain the conditional message "if the moratorium is lifted."
One of the more contentious issues involves the milling of the ore, which involves the separation of radioactive-laced rock that is stored in containment units for generations. While the company has said it will store the waste in below-grade containment units to minimize the risk of uranium-laced waste entering public water supplies and farm fields, opponents are not convinced the waste called tailings would be secure during an intense storm or torrential rains.
Several Hampton Roads cities that draw their water supplies from Lake Gaston in Southside Virginia oppose mining, fearing the contamination of drinking water.
The working group outlines the regulatory options on that aspect of mining: the state or the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
"Virginia can regulate the mill by developing and fully staffing a program that is compatible with the NRC's regulatory requirements, which would require a significant dedication of resources... "the working group states in the typical how-to approach if the report.
The report is among many that have examined uranium mining, from the scientific to the economic. A study by the National Academy of Science completed one year ago did not specifically assess the Virginia Uranium property, but concluded the state would face formidable challenges to ensure the safe mining and milling of uranium.