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Game on for foes, backers of lifting ban / December 06, 2012

Danville Register & Bee
Reprinted with permission

State Sen. John C. Watkins, R-Powhatan, confirmed Monday he will sponsor a bill in 2013 to lift Virginia’s moratorium on uranium mining.

The senator hinted last week that he “might be” the one to ask for regulations to be written for the uranium industry, fulfilling a requirement in the law that would lift the moratorium. In an announcement issued Monday afternoon, he made it official.

“I have made a request to Legislative Services for legislation that adheres to the principles outlined by the UWG [Uranium Working Group] and intend to be the patron of such a bill,” Watkins wrote. “I invite my colleagues to join me in supporting this legislation to establish a robust state regulatory program for uranium mining.”

Watkins noted, “Passage of this legislation would be the first step in a long [five-to-eight-year] process; it will not authorize any mining activity.”

Last week, Watkins, vice-chair of the Coal and Energy Commission, said he was awaiting the Uranium Working Group’s final report to be issued before making a decision.

Gov. Bob McDonnell formed the Uranium Working Group in January to research health issues connected with the industry and create a draft regulatory framework for uranium mining and milling in the Commonwealth. The Uranium Working Group’s final report was issued Friday — and does not include any recommendation on the 1982 ban.

However, the socioeconomic report requested by the working group has been delayed and was not included in the 125-page, heavily-technical report issued Friday. Wright Environmental, which has been used by the working group for previous studies, subcontracted with the Herndon-based firm ORI to complete the study, but research got a late start. It is expected sometime before the legislative session starts in January.

“I am aware that some of my colleagues remain skeptical about this issue,” Watkins acknowledged in his statement. “But I am confident that the information contained in the many reports and studies that have been done over the past three years and the body of knowledge we obtained on the issue 30 years ago, as well as numerous examples of safe and successful uranium mining around the world, will lead them to the same conclusions to which I have come: Today uranium mining is done safely around the world and Virginia is capable of mining it safely too.”

Watkins was a freshman delegate when the General Assembly first considered the issue, prompted by the efforts of Marline, which wanted to mine the same Pittsylvania County deposit until uranium prices took a nosedive. Watkins was part of the Coal and Energy Commission in 1985, which submitted its own report to the General Assembly based on the conclusions and recommendations of the then-Uranium Administrative Group.

Virginia Uranium has been lobbying the General Assembly to give the state authorization to create regulations for the industry, which would effectively lift the ban. The company wants to mine a 119-million-pound deposit six miles from Chatham.

Watkins received $2,000 from Virginia Uranium in campaign contributions made in 2011 and 2008. The company also paid $2,658 to send Watkins to visit mines in Canada in 2011. The year before, Virginia Uranium paid $9,327 for Watkins to visit France.

The Uranium Working Group’s report will be presented to the Uranium Subcommittee of the Coal and Energy Commission at 5 p.m. Dec. 11 at the Olde Dominion Agricultural Complex in Chatham. No action on the report will be taken that night, but written questions will be taken from the audience after the Uranium Working Group’s presentation.

Local legislators were lukewarm to Watkins’ announcement.

Delegate Don Merricks, R-Pittsylvania, has read the working group’s report and doesn’t share Watkins’ confidence, in part because the socioeconomic study is not complete. He said the report laid out regulatory structure, but left other questions unanswered.

“I’ve yet to see state agencies work very well together, period,” Merricks said. “You can draw up regulations. That’s really not the question. It didn’t answer the what-ifs.”

He added: “At this point in time, I’m not convinced it’s the right thing to do,” he said.

Nevertheless, said Merricks, “I can deal with the mining. I think we can regulate that.”

He said that Virginia has extensive experience with mining, but the storage of uranium mine wastes, called tailings, and uranium milling gives him heartburn.

“I just think that’s a risky, risky thing. I have an issue with that.”

Delegate Danny Marshall, R-Danville, says he has spoken with Watkins and disagrees with the senator.

“It doesn’t have to be the way he’s doing it,” Marshall said. “I think it’s backwards, myself. I think there should first be a vote to lift the moratorium.”

He added: “What could happen is that you have a bill drawn saying we will vote on lifting the moratorium and if the moratorium is lifted, regulations will be drawn.”

Marshall said writing regulations will cost several million dollars and take 18 to 24 months.

“Money is always tight in state government,” he said. “What if we write those regulations and don’t lift the moratorium?”

Marshall says he is still plodding through the report, but what he’s read so far doesn’t convince him that lifting the moratorium in the right thing to do.

“Everything’s got a risk. Everything’s got a reward,” he said. “I think the risks are too high for the rewards.”

Another legislative meeting will be scheduled in Richmond before the General Assembly convenes. The discussion of any possible action or recommendation related to the report will take place then.

After the Division of Legislative Services crafts the bill, Watkins can introduce it in the 2013 session. It will need to pass the House and Senate and be signed by the governor for the moratorium to be lifted. If that happens, the process of writing regulations would begin. Those would need to be in place before a permit could be issued. Virginia Uranium would also be required to do one or more environmental impact studies. The public would have input in the regulatory and environmental impacts processes.

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