RICHMOND — Dozens of Southside Virginia proponents of uranium mining arrived by bus at the Capitol on Thursday as lawmakers provided more details on proposed legislation that would end a 1980s state moratorium on mining the ore used in nuclear power reactors.
The elected officials stressed that the legislation would create a robust, highly regulated environment for uranium mining, which has never been done at full scale on the East Coast, and provide jobs and revenue for Southside Virginia. About 70 mining supporters stood behind them and nodded in agreement.
"I respect the concerns that opponents of uranium mining have expressed," state Sen. John C. Watkins said. "My bill is a sincere attempt to address those concerns."
Mr. Watkins, Powhatan Republican, introduced two other allies of uranium mining: Sen. Richard L. Saslaw, Fairfax Democrat, and Delegate Jackson H. Miller, Manassas Republican, who said he will introduce similar legislation in the House of Delegates.
Mr. Watkins said his bill is still being drafted but he presented a list of its key elements. One would effectively limit the mining to Virginia Uranium Inc. and the 119-million-pound deposit it wants to mine in Pittsylvania County, about 20 miles from the North Carolina line. The so-called Coles Hill deposit is the largest known uranium deposit in the U.S. and among the largest in the world.
The bill would make the State Corporation Commission the lead licensing agency as various other state departments — mining, environmental and public health — develop uranium mining regulations. It also would require Virginia Uranium to store waste, called tailings, in below-grade containment centers.
The vast amount of tailings created in separating the ore from rock would have to be stored for generations. It has been the key environmental concern of opponents who fear a catastrophic weather event could scatter radioactive-laced waste in public drinking water supplies.
Katie Preston of Keep the Ban, a coalition of groups opposed to mining, said she was grateful to get more details on the proposed regulations, but her concerns were not assuaged by the details released Thursday.
"One of the greatest concerns of the Keep the Ban coalition has been the potential impact on water supplies, not only for Virginians in the Hampton Roads region but also our neighbors in North Carolina, who don't have a voice in the General Assembly and need someone to speak on their behalf," Ms. Preston said.
The city of Virginia Beach, which draws its water from Lake Gaston in southern Virginia and is the state's largest city, has been a leading municipal opponent to mining.
One mining supporter, former Hurt Mayor Lillian Gillespie, said she was satisfied with various studies on uranium mining.
"It's my opinion that the scientists have spoken that it can be done safely," Ms. Gillespie said after the news briefing. She guessed that the 1,206 residents of Hurt, which is in Pittsylvania County, are evenly divided on the issue.
Mr. Miller said limiting mining to Southside Virginia was not a critical factor in his decision to support mining legislation, and he stressed that the final decision will not be before the General Assembly.
"I've been criticized by some people from Southside, and some people from my own district, quite frankly — how could you force something down the throat of someone at the opposite end of the state?" Mr. Miller said. "Well, we are not doing that."
Pittsylvania County ultimately would have to decide whether to issue a special permit to allow mining, Mr. Miller said.
Marshall A. Ecker, chairman of the county's Board of Supervisors, has attempted in the past without success to have the board take a stand against uranium mining. He agreed the decision will likely fall to the board, after a review by planners.
He said the legislature is saying, "We'll lift the moratorium, it's in your ballpark now. You make the decision. Go from there."
By most estimates, that wouldn't occur for another eight or so years.