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Opinion

At the dead end

SoVaNow.com / January 30, 2013
It’s always a bad idea to count chickens before they hatch, but the prospects for lifting Virginia’s ban on uranium mining are beginning to resemble nothing if not a dead duck.

The uranium lobby suffered a potentially fatal blow this week at the General Assembly after the primary Senate bill on mining was assigned to the Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources Committee, a group solidly in favor of keeping the ban in place. Sitting on the 15-member committee are hometown senator Frank Ruff and fellow Southside Republican Bill Stanley of Franklin County, both uranium mining foes. Also on the panel are seven Democrats, six of whom have publicly stated their opposition to lifting the moratorium.

One Democratic committee member, Richmond Senator Donald McEachin, posted this reassuring message on his Facebook wall this week: “I can state with a great deal of confidence that there are less than 5 votes on the committee for lifting the ban. I can also tell you that there are not 21 votes in the Senate to lift the ban.”

On top of that, Ruff said this week to the Danville Register & Bee, “I think we already had the votes we needed.”

So, after all the huffing and puffing over whether the uranium industry should be allowed to dig its claws into Southside Virginia, the entire business is likely to perish in committee, and that’ll be that, right?

Perhaps.

The Senate committee is scheduled to vote Thursday on Powhatan Senator John Watkins’ bill to establish regulations governing the proposed Coles Hill uranium mine near Chatham. (In an indication of what Watkins must believe is uranium mining’s viability in the rest of the state, his Senate Bill 1353 applies only to Pittsylvania County). Watkins had said he hoped to have the legislation heard in the pro-business Senate Commerce and Labor Committee, which he chairs, but the Senate clerk ruled that the bill properly belonged with the natural resources committee. Closely split between the parties (eight Republicans, seven Democrats) and attuned to concerns coming out of the countryside, the panel is quite possibly the worst destination one could have booked for Virginia Uranium Inc.’s dream destination — the worldwide commodity market for yellowcake.

If the bill dies in committee, as appears likely, it dies for the session. Unless — and here’s where parliamentary expertise comes in handy — Virginia Uranium’s lobbyists at the Capitol can come up with an end-around for pushing industry-friendly legislation past a hostile committee and onto the Senate floor. I don’t cover the Capitol, so I don’t know how this sort of stuff is supposed to work, but Virginia-Pilot reporter Julian Walker does. Walker, who has done excellent work on the uranium saga throughout the session, wrote Tuesday that industry-friendly lawmakers may try to lard up a pair of companion bills (both of which would impose a severance tax on yellowcake production) to achieve the lifting of the moratorium. Reports Walker (at http://www.hamptonroads.com):

Watkins’ severance tax legislation is in the Finance Committee where Republicans have a 10-5 advantage and at least one Democratic member, Sen. Richard Saslaw of Fairfax County, supports mining legislation.

Amending that legislation on the Senate floor, if a uranium bill gets that far, would be tougher because Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, who favors keeping the ban, would have some say in the matter.

He said Monday his initial impression is that attempting such an amendment on the floor “sounds like a stretch, but stranger things have happened up here.”

…. A uranium lobbyist Monday said their side has four active bills in the General Assembly and plenty of options yet to explore.

Or as Watkins put it, “it’s too early” to write off uranium for this year.

About all this, we shall see. For the pro-mining forces, the problem isn’t simply getting legislation through committee — it’s commanding a majority of votes in the unlikely event a bill does in fact reach the Senate floor. (In case you were wondering how uranium legislation is faring over in the House of Delegates, the answer is simple — a bill to lift the ban likely would pass, but delegates are waiting to see what the Senate does before sticking their necks out for Virginia Uranium Inc.). Senator McEachin’s head-count of the full Senate is probably correct, which begs the question of how Virginia Uranium expects to improve its chances with backroom maneuvers that likely would make more people sour on the industry than already exist. At what point does Virginia Uranium bow to the inevitable and accept that “no” means “no”? (I know: never).

Being in the rock-busting business, VUI no doubt has a few hard heads around who would like to press the question. Therein, however, lies the problem for the industry: it loses whenever this debate is conducted out in the open. VUI’s strategy all along has been to play the inside game at the Capitol, which works fine with most legislative sausage-making but not so much when people are paying close attention. If only the political process operated this way all the time.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from watching politics over the years, it’s that lawmakers have an endless supply of rabbits to pull out of their hats. If the Senate ag committee votes down Watkins’ uranium bill on Thursday afternoon, the chances that Virginia will abandon its three-decade mining moratorium drop precipitously. But they don’t vanish. For that to happen, one must wait for the last gavel to fall. Vacations can wait!

***

On Monday, a contingent of about 250 people, most of them from Southside, gathered at the Capitol to show their support for keeping Virginia’s uranium mining ban. I traveled to Richmond for the rally; you can read our report from the front lines (that is, the lineup of residents on both sides of the Capitol Square walkway) on page 1.

On my way back to where my car was parked, I bumped into none other than the dean of the Capitol press corps, Richmond Times-Dispatch columnist Jeff Shapiro. It would be tempting to say Shapiro has forgotten more about Virginia politics than most lawmakers will ever know, except he seems to forget nothing — a handy attribute in the reporting business. (There are many more such skills one can cite in the case of the inestimable Mr. Shapiro.) In the few minutes we had to chat between the time he was due to cover a committee meeting and I incurred a parking fine, I gained some interesting insights on how the General Assembly works. But perhaps Shapiro’s keenest observation had to do with Walter Coles, president of Virginia Uranium Inc. and owner of the Coles Hill property. After working mightily to line up Canadian corporate interests to underwrite the campaign to dig uranium in Virginia, how exactly does Coles intend to break it to his investors that the Old Dominion won’t play ball?

Good question.



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