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Uranium backers: It’s up to McDonnell / February 04, 2013
In the aftermath of defeat before a hostile State Senate committee, the lead advocate for uranium mining in the General Assembly, Senator John Watkins (R-Powhatan) appealed to Gov. Bob McDonnell to draft regulations for the industry using his executive authority.

Saying he was “very disappointed” by the inability to overcome the “emotion and fear” that surrounds the uranium issue, Watkins said the death of his bill, Senate Bill 1353, to regulate the mining and milling of radioactive ore in Pittsylvania County was “a definite stigma and blot” on Virginia’s reputation “as a pro-business, pro-energy, pro-property rights state.

“It says to the business community here and around the country that Virginia may not be as open for business as we claim it is,” said Watkins.

Watkins was referring to his decision Thursday to strike the bill before it went down to all-but-certain defeat in the Senate Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources Committee (see story below). Watkins also asked the Senate to shelve companion legislation to establish a severance tax on the production of uranium ore at Pittsylvania’s Coles Hill site.

In the House of Delegates, Del. Jackson Miller, sponsor of similar bills to regulate and tax uranium mining, also asked that the matter be shelved for the session.

While the demise of the bills leaves no apparent legislative vehicle for lifting the ban, and would appear to preclude any effort this session to get around uranium opposition via the budget process, Watkins said he wasn’t giving up, and asked Gov. McDonnell to set in motion the process of writing regulations for uranium mining and milling.

The Governor’s Office offered no immediate comment other than to say it would study Watkins’ request.

“This is an issue that a lot of people have put a lot of time on over the last several years, and it is not going to go away,” said Watkins.

His suggestion was endorsed by Virginia Uranium Inc., which is seeking to mine the 119-million pound Coles Hill ore deposit, pegged by Watkins as having a value of $7 billion.

“The need for good jobs and investment in Southside Virginia and the need for domestic sources of fuel to power clean reliable nuclear power are compelling reasons why we will continue to make our case to the people and the legislature for as long as it takes to succeed,” said VUI Project Manager Patrick Wales in a statement.

Wales acknowledged that Watkins’ bill to establish a regulatory framework for uranium mining was “lengthy and complex, but even so, did not address every detail that would ultimately be included in fully promulgated regulations.” By directing agencies to go forward with the process of drafting regulations, the governor would “undoubtedly answer many remaining questions and we believe would foster comfort with this promising industry and confidence in its safety,” Wales added.

Watkins claimed the support of Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment, the chamber’s top Republican, and Minority Leader Dick Saslaw, a Fairfax County Democrat, in seeking to shift the issue to the executive branch. “I have heard many in the other body” — the House of Delegates — “express a similar opinion,” said Watkins.

He said the Governor’s Office had the authority to promulgate regulations under the Administrative Process Act. It would still be up to the legislature to lift the mining moratorium, which has been in place since 1982, but lawmakers at the time envisioned that rules for the industry could be created before the ban would be lifted, said Watkins.

“Let’s get the answers that the opponents keep demanding about what the regs will say and what the safeguards will be, so that we have those answers when we vote on this moratorium,” said Watkins.

The request brought a sharp rebuke from groups opposed to uranium mining, including the Roanoke River Basin Association, whose acting president, Gene Addesso, charged Watkins of ignoring the warnings of scientists who say uranium cannot be mined in wet-weather Virginia without running serious risks.

“Recent facts are that power companies are extremely wary of nuclear power costs and risks. What world is this guy been living in?” said Addesso.

Cale Jaffe, director of the Southern Environmental Law Center in Charlottesville, told the Associated Press this week he met with McDonnell in December to discuss uranium mining and was “impressed by his willingness to dig into the details of the issue.

“At this point, the studies have been done, and those studies —particularly the peer-review National Academy of Sciences Study — have validated a lot of our core concerns,” Jaffe told the AP in an email. “The science has shed a lot of light on this issue.”

Mining buried

Bill pulled from Senate panel without a vote, signaling end to legislative push

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