Virginia mining decision alive

Jan. 10, 2013 @ 07:47 PM

The Virginia Commission on Coal and Energy has moved the state one step closer to permitting uranium mining.

Meeting Monday two days before the General Assembly convened, the commission by 11-2 vote recommended lawmakers pass legislation establishing a statutory framework for uranium mining.

The ban of 30 years remains in place, and more hurdles would have to be cleared before mining could happen approximately 50 miles from Henderson and Kerr Lake. But as Bill Confroy, a councilman for the town of Halifax, Va., said, “In essence, it lifts the ban.”

Even if passed by the legislature, federal hurdles would also have to be cleared and eventually a local hurdle — a special use permit from Pittsylvania County. The county is among the governmental agencies yet to take a stand, and observers say its population is divided on the issue.

John Watkins, a Virginia state senator from Powhatan, said he would introduce a bill that includes the recommendations of the commission.

“It would not permit mining itself, but it would put in place the regulatory framework to remove the moratorium,” Watkins said in a telephone interview with The Dispatch on Thursday.

“I’d rather see it done in a practical way than wait and a decade from now it becomes important enough that the federal government decides to do it,” Watkins said. “That’s what happened in western states.

“It’s needed for economic development. That particular area has the highest unemployment rate in the state.”

The state would realize revenue through a severance tax on mining, he said.

“It would also produce a lot of jobs, probably 300 to 400 direct jobs and twice that amount in indirect jobs,” Watkins said.

That viewpoint is disputed by Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling.

“I am concerned that removing the ban on uranium mining could have a chilling effect on the economic progress we are making in this important region of the state,” he said. “The success of our ongoing job creation efforts is too great to take the risk of adding uranium mining operation to the equation.”

Confroy was present when the commission voted and is concerned about the specifics of the bill.

“Sen. Watkins is sponsoring a bill that no one has seen,” he said. “There is considerable opposition along the Roanoke River Basin and its tributaries. Most communities have adopted resolutions opposing the mining.”

The Roanoke Times reported Thursday more than 40 governmental organizations have resolutions against mining, and both sides on the issue have hired lobbyists — 19 by proponents, nine for opponents.

The site is about 10 miles from a loop in the Roanoke River, the source of water for Kerr Lake. Samuel Green, soil and water supervisor for Vance County, has a front row seat for anything affecting Kerr Lake.

“Our mission is to guarantee water quality and quantity,” he said.

He is concerned about the hazards of uranium mining on the Roanoke River.

“A storm like Sandy could affect everyone in the Roanoke River Basin,” he said. “Family farms in the immediate area will be wiped out.”

Newly elected state Rep. Nathan Baskerville, whose district includes Vance, Warren and a portion of Granville counties, said, “My concern would be how it would affect our water supply. I’m not ready to take a position on it since there’s no legislation yet, but I am ready to study the issue.”

Watkins said, “We are very attentive to the fact that it must be done safely to protect the environment, the workers and the people who live in the area.”

Confroy counters, “There is no way you can mine and mill uranium without affecting the environment. There are lots of ways it can get into the environment — through the water table, aquifers and the air.”

As to the impact on the town of Halifax, he said, “We would be ground zero.”

The site in Pittsylvania County was discovered in the 1970s but was never developed. When uranium prices jumped in recent years, interest in the site was renewed.

Walter Coles, owner of the site, joined with a group of investors to form Virginia Uranium, Inc., with hopes of mining the uranium. The Coles Hill site deposit is estimated at 119 million pounds, worth about $7 billion and is considered the largest in the country and among the 10 largest in the world.

“It’s just a question of big money,” Conroy said. “It’s a big push by Virginia Uranium.”

Support for that position is provided by the Virginia Public Access Project, a non-partisan non-profit organization that monitors the role of money in Virginia politics. According to data released by that organization, Virginia Uranium contributed $161,500 each to three different political campaigns during 2011 and 2012. Individual contributions ranged from $500 to $12,500 and included donations to 14 candidates for the Virginia senate and 27 candidates for the Virginia House of Delegates, including $5,000 to Delegate Greg Habeeb and $1,000 each to Watkins and Delegate Terry Kilgore, all of whom have been reported as supporting legislation to create a regulatory framework for uranium mining.

In spite of the direction things are moving, Confroy said, “I’m optimistic that when it gets to the General Assembly it won’t pass.”

Contact the writer at dirvine@hendersondispatch.com.