McDonnell backs closer look at uranium mining

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RICHMOND — Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell said Thursday that the General Assembly should delay any action on lifting the state’s 30-year ban on uranium mining during the 2012 session. He instead directed state agencies to analyze the matter and report back before next year.

Mr. McDonnell had not taken an official position on the matter after a National Academy of Sciences report issued in December said the state faces steep hurdles if it wants to safely mine the radioactive element. The report also said best practices exist that could help combat risks to public safety and health. Mr. McDonnell, a Republican, has consistently said that public safety was the top consideration on whether he would recommend going forward with lifting the ban.

“One of the things the report was very clear on was they couldn’t make a full evaluation of whether we could or could not safely mine uranium in Virginia because we didn’t have a regulatory structure in place,” Mr. McDonnell told reporters Thursday. “It’s sort of a chicken-and-the-egg thing.”

To that end, Mr. McDonnell is directing members of his Cabinet to convene a working group with staff from the departments of Health, Environmental Quality and Mines, Minerals and Energy to provide an analysis on whether the moratorium should be lifted and, if so, how.

The group would establish a draft framework for regulations that would govern mining and milling the radioactive element in the state — a prospect that was welcomed on Thursday by Virginia Uranium Inc. The company wants to mine a 119-million-pound deposit worth up to $10 billion at the Coles Hill site in southside Pittsylvania County.

“Every independent scientific study conducted by the commonwealth over the past 30 years has come to the same conclusion, that uranium mining can be conducted safely in Virginia as long as stringent regulatory standards and industry best practices are put in place,” said Patrick Wales, project manager for VUI. “The governor’s decision moves the commonwealth one step closer toward adopting these standards and will allow our company to demonstrate our sincere commitment to protecting the environment and the well-being of Virginia’s citizens.”

The Southern Environmental Law Center, meanwhile, offered a tempered reaction to the announcement.

Bob Burnley, a former director for the state’s Department of Environmental Quality who is consulting with the law center, called it “encouraging” but said the details raise some concerns — notably the potential cost of having the task force set up draft regulations.

But Mr. McDonnell clamped down on the notion that his directive constituted a move toward definitively lifting the ban.

“We’re not making any pre-judgements on what it’ll show — I’m just directing them, based on everything I’ve read in the reports, to take this next step,” he said. “You know, the flip side is, it’s great jobs, it’s great tax revenue, it’s great economic development. But we are not going to do any of that if it cannot be done with a maximum degree of safety for our people, for our water quality and for the environment. … The report was very clear that they couldn’t make a complete judgement on whether or not the moratorium should be lifted or whether mining can be done safely because they don’t know what the regulations would be.”

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