RICHMOND — Proposed uranium mining in Virginia easily survived its first legislative test Monday, with lawmakers recommending the development of regulations for the mining of the radioactive ore.
Those rules — and whether a 30-year ban on such mining is lifted — ultimately would need to be approved by the General Assembly.
The Coal and Energy Commission voted 11-2 in support of legislation proposed by Sen. John C. Watkins that would have the effect of limiting mining to one company and the only known, commercially viable deposit of uranium in the state: Virginia Uranium Inc. and a 119-million-pound deposit in state's southern tier that is the largest in the U.S. It is valued at $7 billion. The bill also would set forth rules for the company's mining operation.
Opponents shouted out protests after the commission voted. "We will never forget what you've done," a woman said from the audience that included many people wearing neon green T-shirts reading "Keep the Ban."
Virginia Uranium welcomed the commission's recommendation and deemed it an important step by a panel that has grappled with the issue for years.
"I think it's significant, a very positive sign," said Patrick Wales, project manager for the mining company. "It's not just any commission. It is the commission that has presided over this for the past five years."
The General Assembly is expected to take up uranium mining in its 2013 session that convenes Wednesday.
"It's going to be close," said Mr. Watkins, Powhatan Republican and a commission member. "This is a big deal."
Full-scale uranium mining has never occurred on the East Coast. Critics contend mining and processing the ore has the potential to be an environmental nightmare if a catastrophic storm or torrential rains slammed Southside Virginia. The deposit is in the region along the North Carolina line, and is where radioactive waste would be stored for generations.
Virginia Uranium contends mining the so-called Coles Hill project and the milling can be done safely using best industry practices. It has said it will store the waste in below-ground containment units.
Mr. Watkins, who said he expects to have the legislation in hand by next week, said the bill would be crafted so "the Coles Hill people would be the only people who would qualify."
Asked why he would limit uranium mining in the state, Mr. Watkins said: "Because I want the bill to pass."
Critics contend that allowing uranium mining at the Coles Hill deposit could lead to other mining in other parts of the state, including central and Northern Virginia where mining companies have shown interest in possible uranium deposits.
"Clearly this is an attempt to win the votes of Northern Virginia delegates, to say it's not going to be in your backyard, don't worry," said Mike Pucci, a uranium mining opponent from North Carolina. "The toxicity is going to be limited to southern Virginia and all of North Carolina."
Mr. Wales said Virginia Uranium is interested only in the Coles Hill site, one of the largest known deposits in the world.
Virginia Uranium has said the expected life of the uranium mine would be 35 years. It would employ approximately 350, the company has said, pressing an economic argument in an economically weak area.
Mr. Watkins was pressed on his legislation after the meeting and advised reporters that specifics would be clear once the bill has been drafted.
Robert G. Burnley, a former director of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality who now is affiliated with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said the legislation is a "de facto" vote on ending the 31-year ban.
"I think that the idea is not to take an up-or-down vote on lifting the ban because it's such an emotional issue and there's so much indisputable evidence against uranium mining," he said.
The moratorium was put in place 1982, several years after the Coles Hill discovery, when interest in mining and the price of uranium waned following an accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania. Virginia Uranium resurrected the issue several years ago as the nation appeared headed to a nuclear power renaissance. The uranium at Coles Hill would be processed into yellowcake to fuel nuclear reactors.
The company has lobbied hard to end the ban, flying legislators to France and Canada on its tab to tour mining and milling facilities and giving hundreds of thousands of dollars to legislators. Several members of the Coal and Energy Commission have received contributions from the company.
While environmental groups have led the charge against mining, the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation took the unexpected step of opposing mining, and municipal groups have also joined in the opposition. Virginia Beach, which draws public drinking water from southern Virginia, has also taken a stand against mining, as well as other cities in Hampton Roads.