Virginia governor quiet, as is uranium mining

Feb. 15, 2013 @ 05:46 PM

Virginia’s governor has a reputation for not wearing anything on his sleeve. His poker face remained stern on Friday when six legislators from southern Virginia met with him regarding uranium mining.

Del. Donald Merricks, one of the six meeting Gov. Bob McConnell, said it doesn’t look like uranium mining will be happening anytime soon. The issue, however, is not to be classified as done.

“He’s got a good poker face. He doesn’t show his hand,” Merricks said in an Associated Press report of the meeting. “He’s got too many other things on his plate to be thinking about uranium. I don’t even think it’s on his radar screen right now. Not saying it won’t be down the road.”

Sens. Frank M. Ruff Jr. and William M. Stanley and Delegates James E. Edmunds, Danny Marshall III and Thomas C. Wright Jr. also were in the meeting. McDonnell spokesman J. Tucker Martin confirmed the meeting and said the governor’s top policy people were in attendance as well.

Sen. John Watkins has been at the point for requesting the Virginia legislature to remove a ban on uranium mining established in 1982. Virginia Uranium, Inc., is hoping to mine a site at Coles Hill near Chatham, Va., which is about 50 direct miles from Henderson and Kerr Lake, and just 20 miles from the state border.

The Pittsylvania County site is located within the Roanoke River Basin, which supplies water into both Kerr Lake and Lake Gaston. About 1.9 million people in North Carolina and Virginia, including Virginia Beach, depend on the lakes for drinking water.

The uranium site was discovered in the 1970s, but uranium prices plummeted and it was never mined. Three decades later, it is believed a 119-million pound deposit worth an estimated $7 billion awaits.

The area of Virginia is in need of jobs, and the site could lead to as many as 1,000 by some estimates.

Watkins, a Republican from Powhatan, crafted legislation to get regulations for mining in place. Two days before lawmakers’ 43-day short session began in January, the Virginia Commission on Coal and Energy gave their backing to Watkins’ proposal in an 11-2 vote.

But Watkins asked for it to be stricken before the Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources could vote. A report indicated nine of 12 members in the 15-member committee opposed the measure.

Del. Jackson Miller then asked Del. Terry Kilgore, the chairman of the Commerce and Labor Committee, not to bring forward the companion legislation in the House of Delegates. With the proposal not even getting heard in committee, much less on the floors of either the House or Senate, Watkins attempted an end-around by requesting McDonnell to instruct state agencies to draw up regulations for mining.

Calls and emails from lobbyists began flooding the governor’s office immediately. More of the calls and emails were against lifting the ban, according to an AP report.

Publicly, McDonnell has said he has not formed a position on mining and may not take one.

Merricks said in Friday’s meeting McDonnell revealed little to change that view. McDonnell reportedly told the group he is focused on his legacy transportation funding proposal and an education reform package.

“The governor appreciated the opportunity to hear directly from local legislators on this issue,” Martin wrote in an email to the AP.

If McDonnell does follow through and ask for regulations to be prepared, the General Assembly would still have to give approval to lifting the ban. After that and other federal regulations are met, the Pittsylvania County Board of Supervisors would have final say with a special use permit.

If the ban had been lifted in the session, mining wouldn’t have been expected to begin before 2017. One of the last government entities to take a stand on the issue was the Pittsylvania supervisors, who in January told lawmakers they were against lifting the ban. The area’s chamber of commerce, after polling its membership to determine if it should take any position, said earlier in January it was against lifting the ban as well.

Contact the writer at awooten@hendersondispatch.com.