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Consensus lacking on uranium framework / December 03, 2012
A new report by the Uranium Working Group that lays out a complex regulatory framework for the Coles Hill project in Pittsylvania County is drawing praise and fire in equal measure from the sides locked in a heated debate over uranium mining in Virginia.

The UWG, which consists of staff from the three Virginia agencies that would have regulatory authority over mining, issued its report Friday after examining the issue for almost a year. The 125-page study draws on expert opinion and public comments to suggest how Virginia should sanction uranium mining should the state’s 30-year ban on the industry be lifted. The General Assembly is expected to take up that question in the 2013 session starting in January.

The report, delivered to Governor Bob McDonnell on Friday, suggests that Virginia should assume maximum oversight of both uranium mining and milling — the latter refers to the process whereby mined ore is refined into yellowcake for use in nuclear reactors — while giving state agencies broad new legal and regulatory powers. Although mining is typically regulated by states, the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission has primary oversight of the milling of uranium ore.

The report also calls for boosting department budgets by more than $4 million, with funding for new staff and monitoring to come from fees imposed on Virginia Uranium, Inc., the company that wants to dig up the 119-million pound Coles Hill ore deposit in Pittsylvania.

The report further lists steps Virginia could take to protect taxpayers from potential fiscal burdens, including requirements that VUI pay into funds that could be tapped in the event of an environmental disaster.

While the report makes no recommendation on whether Virginia should lift its mining ban, VUI Project Manager Patrick Wales declared himself “pleased” by the UWG’s determination that “our regulatory agencies are capable of effectively and safely regulating uranium mining.

“In the report’s own words, ‘If the General Assembly decides to lift the existing moratorium, the need for a comprehensive program to regulate uranium mining within DMME can be met by developing a statutory and regulatory program for uranium mining,’” said Wales.

DMME is a reference to the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy, which would have regulatory authority along with the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and the Virginia Department of Health.

Wales added in a statement, “[W]e sincerely believe our elected representatives are equipped with the information and assurances they will need to lift Virginia’s moratorium on uranium mining by allowing our state’s regulatory agencies to adopt an appropriate regulatory program.”

VUI’s opponents, however, cautioned that the Uranium Working Group study offers only a hypothetical approach to industry regulation and is silent on the broader question of whether uranium mining makes sense for Virginia.

Foes also questioned the premise of the report, noting that other studies of the Coles Hill project, including one by the National Academy of Sciences, raise serious doubts as to whether uranium mining can be conducted safely under any circumstances in Virginia’s wet-weather climate.

“You can’t regulate Mother Nature and you can’t compensate for damage that is everlasting,” said Gene Addesso, acting president of the bi-state Roanoke River Basin Association, one of a number of organizations in Virginia and North Carolina fighting the proposed mine. “There is no kind of regulation that is going to make this thing safe. You can write all the regulations you want. They will be broken, they will be subject to natural disasters.”

Mining foes scored a victory this week with a decision by the Virginia Farm Bureau to endorse keeping Virginia’s moratorium in place. But as the UWG report makes plain, the ultimate judgment will rest with lawmakers, who along with lifting the moratorium would have to establish a complicated set of rules with the introduction of uranium mining in Virginia.

The report suggests the permitting process alone could take years for VUI to fulfill, even with the lifting of the moratorium.

Gov. McDonnell, in a statement, said he would carefully review the report’s findings in coming weeks and meet with stakeholders on both sides before deciding whether to take a position on lifting the ban.

“I have formed no prior opinion on whether mining should be permitted, as I have awaited, like most should, the publication of this report,” said McDonnell. “As I have previously noted, the overriding consideration is whether uranium mining and milling can be conducted with a high degree of public safety, and whether suitable assurances can be given that the air, water, health, and well-being of the citizens will be protected.”

McDonnell said the National Academy of Sciences study on uranium mining provided “much useful information” but “very little specific to the issues in Virginia, and left many questions [about Coles Hill] unanswered.” He commended the Uranium Working Group, which relied on a consulting group criticized by mining opponents for its ties to the industry, for its “high level of professionalism, openness and evenhandedness.”

Tucked into the dense, carefully worded report are dozens of key policy questions that would follow with an end to the moratorium:

The legislature would need to decide what operational requirements should be placed on Virginia Uranium, Inc. and other companies that are pushing to mine uranium in Virginia. Mining operations should be subject to unannounced inspections, be required to develop reclamation plans for sites once they are depleted, and adopt procedures to enable a high level of public oversight, including Environmental Impact Statements (EIAs) with each permit request.

The state should also require VUI and other companies to describe the methods they propose to use to mine uranium — such as surface, underground or in-situ leach mining — before it develops its regulatory framework.

Virginia should consider taking primary responsibility for regulating the milling of uranium ore, a task typically handled by the federal government. Such a step, the UWG report suggests, would allow the state to devote more resources than it can expect from the federal government.

First, though, Virginia would be required to become an “agreement” state with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission — a status now held only by Utah, Texas, Colorado and Washington — and enter into negotiations with Washington that could take years to complete. If accomplished, oversight of milling would fall to the health department’s Division of Radiological Health, the report states.

Virginia would need to impose financial requirements on mining companies, including performance bonds, liability insurance and the creation of cash funds to pay for long-term maintenance and mitigation issues and potential short-term emergencies. To ensure that the funds would be adequate, the state could impose a tax on the sale of ore, the report suggests.

The report also calls for civil and criminal penalties for companies that violate the rules and advocates a regulatory framework that “make(s) the enforcement and compliance activities self supporting and not an obligation to the public.”

The Uranium Working Group document includes numerous passages that outline how different agencies might coordinate their activities, ranging from environmental monitoring to workplace inspections to data collecting on the health effects of mining.

Addesso, of the Roanoke River Basin Association, said nevertheless, he was “quite disappointed” by what he said was the report’s “not very informative” discussion of the potential environmental and health impacts of mining.

“It seemed like they focused more on worker safety than the safety of the environment of the area,” he said.

The Roanoke River Basin Association is drafting a letter to Governor McDonnell spelling out its objections to the report, he said.

McDonnell noted Friday that one aspect of the Uranium Working Group’s mission remains unfulfilled: the submission of a socio-economic study on the benefits and risks of mining in Southside Virginia. McDonnell said the UWG’s work has been slowed by the difficulty in finding a firm that is capable of making such an assessment and hasn’t been retained by one side or the other in the uranium debate. He said he hoped to have the socioeconomic study in hand by mid-January.

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