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Chatham uranium meeting heated, contentious

South Boston News
Opponents of uranium mining, some from North Carolina, held a press conference Monday night prior to an update briefing by the Uranium Working Group. Verbal sparring between opponents and supporters of uranium mining set the tone for a contentious evening. At center is Andrew Lester of the Roanoke River Basin Association; he also represents the Halifax-based Virginia Coalition, founded by local business and civic leaders to oppose uranium. / June 19, 2012
Sparks flew Monday night in Chatham, where opponents of a proposed uranium mine traded barbs with supporters of the project and heaped criticism on the state’s multi-agency committee directed by the governor to set up a regulatory framework should uranium mining be permitted.

Several hundred people packed the Chatham High School auditorium, not far from the site of the proposed mine and mill.

“We’re here to tell you that North Carolina supports you, and we will take this all the way to civil disobedience,” said Deborah Ferruccio of Warren County, N.C.

“Where has North Carolina’s voice been?” said Mike Pucci of Littleton, N.C., at the pre-meeting press conference; he represents the North Carolina Coalition Against Uranium Mining. “All of the county governments, all of the lake associations, all of the chambers of commerce and business leaders have passed resolutions to support the people of Virginia to keep this ban.” Some of those localities, plus Virginia Beach, get drinking water downstream from proposed site.

“I hope you people will go back to Richmond … and do something other than trying to force this down our throats,” Halifax Town Council member Jack Dunavant told the Uranium Working Group.

The verbal combat began even before the fractious public meeting, when the Roanoke River Basin Association and Piedmont Residents in Defense of the Environment held a joint press conference in the school’s small lobby. Armed with hand-lettered signs, they were met by uranium supporters, many of whom sported “I Dig U Mining” stickers.

Uranium foes who had already been critical of what they said was the Uranium Working Group’s lack of transparency found even more fault with the group’s actions Monday: Those wanting to comment or question the panel were asked to submit remarks in writing first; some would-be speakers were passed over when the panel decided that their remarks weren’t pertinent to the night’s business. Opponents then discovered that a private consulting firm, Wright Environmental Services of Colorado, which some had already denounced for being too closely tied to the uranium industry, had been hired by the state for not one $500,000 consulting job but two, equaling $1 million.

The state of Virginia can’t afford that, said Karen Maute of Danville.

Then again, it may have been a case of the Uranium Working Group’s simply not being able to do anything right in the eyes of uranium foes, who called into question its necessity and very existence given that the 30-year-old ban on uranium has yet to be lifted by the General Assembly.

“Why are we here?” Dunavant continued. “We have one law to protect us. It’s called the moratorium. We don’t need all that other junk. We don’t need the cost. We don’t need the other people that we need to hire.”

After the intense press conference, the meeting itself got off on an awkward note when Del. Terry Kilgore, moderating the proceedings, welcomed the crowd and thanked Gov. Bob McDonnell and the panel for “all the openness that I’ve seen in this process” – drawing scattered guffaws.

By 9 p.m., only one member of the audience had spoken in favor of uranium mining – Larry Aaron, a Pittsylvania County science teacher and author of local history books, who asked a question about how long permitting might take.

But the meeting was marked with a large contingent of uranium supporters.

George Caylor, a Lynchburg financial planner, said he came down to support the local economy. His family is in the gas and oil business, he said, and a uranium operation would bring jobs. He isn’t backed by Virginia Uranium Inc., he said. “I make a good living at what I do right there,” he said, tapping his business card.

How many of you are local? Caylor asked the sign-hoisting opponents in the lobby, some of whom were North Carolinians.

How many of us drink the water? they shot back.

Also mixing it up with opponents was Andrea Jennetta, publisher of the Washington, D.C.-based “Fuel Cycle Week,” which according to its website is “the only nuclear industry publication with a sense of humor and discernible opinions.”

“Those are lies,” she called out at the uranium foes’ press conference.

Walter Coles Sr., under whose ancestral home lies the massive uranium deposit, said the considerable pro-uranium turnout was in part because his business had encouraged it and in part because his staff had been drumming up support at festivals and trade shows. “Our story,” Coles said, resonates with people looking for employment or enthusiastic about new investments in spin-off industry. He estimated the operation could hire and train 90 percent of its workers locally.

The Uranium Working Group devoted more than 90 minutes to updating the public on what it is charged with doing and its progress; the rest of the evening it took public comments and questions. Speaker after speaker criticized the process of the Working Group or said the uranium mining and milling operation could not be kept safe for the thousands of years that its waste would remain toxic.

Among those remarks:

• One woman was concerned that agriculture wasn’t being addressed.

• Asked Jesse Andrews, of Halifax County, citing millions of dollars in public-school budget cuts: “How many qualified history teachers could be hired for $500,000? Why is uranium mining more important than the proper education of our children?”

• Cale Jaffe, with the Southern Environmental Law Center office in Charlottesville, asked if there was conflict between the National Academy of Sciences report and the Wright report, which would take precedence.

• Read Charlton, of Charlotte County, questioned the cost of creating regulations, and how affected counties would compensate for loss of tax revenue when the federal government is already is deep debt.

• One woman said taxpayers would be responsible for the site “in perpetuity.”

• Tom Raab of Halifax, a furniture store owner and former South Boston Town Council member, asked if the price of uranium fluctuated and the mine ceased temporary operation, would it be maintained.

• James Edward Ablard, representing the state NAACP, suggested the operation could violate the civil rights of minorities and the handicapped.

The Uranium Working Group is sifting through existing reports and filling in gaps to study the safety and feasibility of uranium mining. Its work will wrap up by year’s end, and the General Assembly is expected to take on vote on the issue early next year.

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