A company seeking to mine a 119-million pound southern Virginia uranium deposit has sent letters to localities urging officials to "keep an open mind" before the release of studies that could affect whether the General Assembly votes to overturn the nearly 30-year ban on the practice.
Virginia Uranium Inc. says it wants to mine a site in Pittsylvania County considered to be one of the world's largest untapped sources of the radioactive element widely used in nuclear reactors.
The letter, signed by Walter Coles, the chairman of Virginia Uranium, says an independent engineering study has revealed the "enormous positive economic impact" that such a mining and milling would have on the region, adding that direct and indirect economic benefits would exceed $240 million a year.
"I think our position has been very clear since our company was formed in 2007," said Patrick Wales, Virginia Uranium's project manager. "We have great confidence in this industry, but we feel we need independent scientific research."
Virginia Uranium points to a pending National Academy of Sciences (NAS) study on the statewide impact of mining and a separate one regarding the socio-economic impacts of tapping the supply in Pittsylvania.
"We haven't taken an official position," said Martinsville Mayor Kim Adkins, one of the localities to receive the letter, citing the pending release of the study.
A number of other localities, including the town of Culpeper and the city of Virginia Beach, however, have signed "keep the ban" resolutions. Legislation to begin the process of overturning the ban could be introduced as early as the 2012 General Assembly session.
A coalition of groups in favor of keeping the ban on uranium sent out its own letter noting that more than 50 localities and organizations in Virginia and North Carolina have taken action to support the ban. The coalition cited a study conducted for the city of Virginia Beach that found uranium mining, processing and toxic waste storage upstream from Virginia Beach could contaminate the city's water supply for as long as two years.
A subsequent report commissioned by Virginia Uranium challenged those findings.
The pending studies are expected to be completed in December, and Gov. Bob McDonnell is awaiting the results, spokesman Jeff Caldwell said.
"If the studies conclude that uranium mining can be conducted safely, and confirm that it would create badly needed jobs and other economic activity in the region, the governor will support moving forward to lift the moratorium and develop a regulatory program to permit uranium mining in Virginia," he said.
The NAS will not make recommendations about whether or not uranium mining should be permitted.
Virginia Uranium flew about a dozen state lawmakers to France in June to inspect a closed mine in western France where uranium was mined for about 50 years, until the late 1990s.
Delegate Bill Janis, Goochland Republican, said he thought it was a "helpful and informative trip," noting that the area where the mine was is similar in terrain and weather to Chatham, Va., where the main uranium stockpile is located. Opponents, though, fear that heavy rains or flooding could contaminate nearby water supplies.
Mr. Janis said he, too, was awaiting the study from the National Academy of Sciences and that he hasn't made up his mind yet whether or not he would support lifting the ban.
Environmental groups have lobbied hard to keep the ban, noting that potential impacts could spread beyond the southern part of the state.
The Piedmont Environmental Council (PEC) has pointed out that counties as far north as Fauquier and Orange had active mining leases in the early 1980s, though the Pittsylvania site is currently the only commercially viable site that is known in the state.
"There's some smoke there where you might expect fire to follow," said Rob Marmet, senior energy policy analyst with the PEC. "To assume that it's just going to be on one farm is naive."
"Some of those sites get awfully close to the drinking supply of Northern Virginia," said Delegate Kenneth R. Plum, Fairfax Democrat, who paid his own way to make the trip to France.
The General Assembly would have to pass legislation directing state agencies to develop relevant regulations before the mining could actually occur.
Earlier this year, a company executive told investors to expect a bill on the matter to be introduced during the upcoming session, but Mr. Wales said the timing would be up to Virginia lawmakers.
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