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Pittsylvania board stands pat on uranium resolution

South Boston News
A packed house turned out in Chatham Monday night to urge Pittsylvania supervisors to pass a resolution calling on Virginia to keep its ban on uranium mining. (Tom McLaughlin photo) / October 04, 2012
The Pittsylvania County Board of Supervisors settled an emotional, oftentimes acrimonious debate on whether to support Virginia’s uranium mining ban by punting on the question — for now.

The supervisors Monday night declined to hold an up-or-down vote on a resolution introduced by Staunton River representative Marshall Ecker, who called on fellow members to put Pittsylvania on record against lifting the state’s 30-year mining moratorium. Instead, after a complicated bit of parliamentary maneuvering, the supervisors referred the matter to committee.

The outcome left a largely anti-uranium crowd that packed the Pittsylvania County General District Court room grumbling about the supervisors’ reluctance to take a clear stance on mining and milling, but it also ensured the debate will continue into November.

Ecker, joined by Jessie Barksdale and Jerry Hagerman, the other avowed mining opponents on the Pittsylvania board, sparred with four fellow supervisors who expressed reluctance to vote on a resolution before receiving the report of the Uranium Working Group, appointed by Gov. Bob McDonnell to develop a possible legal and regulatory framework for uranium mining. The UWG is expected to weigh in with its findings in early December.

Ecker urged his colleagues not to wait that long to make the county’s position known in Richmond. He argued that Pittsylvania must send a signal to the rest of the state lest it lose control of the debate over its future.

“The doomsday clock has been [set] for 30 years in Pittsylvania County,” said Ecker, referring to the duration of the moratorium. “And this last year, we have reached the 11th hour.”

Ecker, who made a lengthy presentation recapping uranium mining’s risks as set forth in studies conducted by the National Academy of Sciences and Chumura Analytics, challenged supervisors to set aside their personal feelings and take the action that bests protects their constituents from mining’s potential ill effects. “You are the servants of the people. They’re trusting you with their lives.

“The world is watching to see what we’re going to do. We should have taken a stand a long time ago,” he said.

Ecker’s remarks drew a standing ovation from audience members who filled the courtroom and vastly outnumbered the handful of advocates for Virginia Uranium Inc., which wants to dig up an ore deposit at Coles Hill estimated at 119 million tons.

Other supervisors, however, bristled at Ecker’s presentation, with one member, Brenda Bowman, chastising the crowd for hooting and cackling as board members attempted to talk.

“I’m not turning my back on anyone in this room,” said Bowman to the audience, adding that she and other members receive a steady stream of input from citizens via e-mail messages, phone calls and personal contacts. Eliciting more boos and catcalls from the crowd, she said public meetings have become one-sided against mining because advocates for VUI are deterred from speaking out by “fear and retaliation.”

The comment brought cries of “tell the truth” from multiple members of the audience. Fired back Bowman: “I am telling you the truth. I am telling you what they tell me. They don’t want to come out [to public forums] out of fear.”

James Snead, like Bowman, expressed opposition to the proposed resolution and bristled at a remark by Ecker suggesting that Snead, a smoker, was especially at risk from uranium mining because of the effects of radon poisoning on the lungs. “I don’t appreciate his comments” about smoking, said Snead, who added his personal habits are “my business.”

Board chairman Tim Barber sniped at Ecker for holding the floor for long stretches of the night, but later apologized for the remark, with Ecker thanking him for the apology. However, Barber suggested he had tactical reasons for opposing a resolution at this time.

“We’ve got to send the right resolution to Richmond,” said Barber. “I’m as afraid of this stuff as anybody, but we have to do this [a resolution] right.”

He also pushed back against Ecker’s arguments that waiting sends the wrong message to the General Assembly, which may hold a vote on lifting the mining ban in early 2013: “October 1 is not doomsday,” he said.

Pressed by audience members on when he would be willing to vote on a resolution, Barber replied: “In the very near future.”

That brought a retort from board member Hagerman, who represents the Callands-Gretna district: “Let’s show we’ve got guts enough to put [a resolution] out, in the open, and show everybody what’s going on.”

Ecker’s original motion, which would have put Pittyslvania County firmly on record against lifting the mining ban, was supplanted by a substitute resolution offered by board member Coy Harville. Harville asked to postpone any action until the Uranium Working Group can come back with its report on Coles Hill, but that action was undone by yet another substitute motion, offered this time by Ecker, to have the legislative committee develop the wording for a motion that the full board can take up, possibly as soon as November.

Bowman, who chairs the committee, protested that the panel has too much on its plate right now to come up with a recommendation right away. She also lamented that “all seven of us have never sat down and discussed uranium mining and milling” prior to enacting a resolution. But the final motion, to keep a resolution alive in committee, carried on a 4-2 vote, with Snead joining Ecker, Barksdale and Hagerman in the majority. Bowman and Harville voted no.

The legislative committee will take its first stab at drafting a consensus resolution at its Oct. 16 meeting. The panel has three members: Bowman, the chair, Ecker and Barksdale.

The back-and-forth among supervisors alternately exasperated and infuriated audience members, most of whom argued that uranium mining will be a disaster for Pittsylvania County and surrounding communities and is overrated as a potential source of jobs.

“If the mine comes, we’ll be considered a dumping ground — the dumping ground of Virginia,” said Linda Frank. She added: “The time for doing nothing is over. Do not become the Board of Puppets, being manipulated by the puppeteers in Richmond.”

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