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Cruel twists / January 10, 2013
Funny thing about life: You never know what twists it’ll spring on you from one day to the next. We were reminded of this reality this week with the sudden passing of Halifax County Sheriff’s Lieutenant Steve Cassada, as easygoing and decent a person as you’ll ever want to meet. Steve died Saturday night while dining out with his wife and family members at an Altavista restaurant. His death is a tremendous loss for local law enforcement, to say nothing of all the other realms that were graced by his presence.

A few years ago, I got a taste, albeit much less acutely, of the surprises that life can deliver. I was chosen for jury duty. No big deal, I realize. But I thought I’d get bumped from the pool almost reflexively — being a journalist does have its benefits, including the expectation that you will never be called to sit in on a criminal case that you previously might’ve written about for the paper — so it came as a shock when I was not only selected for the jury, but made the foreman. This was a grand jury, and our job was to decide if the evidence in a case justified a full-blown trial. (That’s all an indictment is.) Fellow members of the jury and I spent the day in a cramped room as law enforcement officers flitted in and out to lay out the particulars against each suspected offender. And more often than not, it was Steve Cassada who would do the talking.

Without going into details — which I’d botch if I tried — I can say two things stood out about the experience: One was the across-the-board professionalism of the law enforcement officers, which Steve for his part more than upheld. But two (and almost as important from my own point of view) was Steve’s knack for putting folks at ease, which wasn’t exactly the simplest thing to do considering the gravity of the assignment. I was more than a little uncomfortable with my own role in the proceedings, yet Steve made it all seem low-key, matter-of-fact and rational. He’d crack a joke or two and get down to business, and whatever jitters people felt would dry up like leaves in autumn.

One of the lieutenant’s recent duties was keeping the local media abreast of news from the Sheriff’s Office, which meant we had the privilege here at the paper of being on the receiving end of Steve’s witticisms and occasional dollops of wisdom. From time to time he’d send out an e-mail assuring us that nothing much was going on that we’d want to bother putting in the paper, but boy were the fish biting and the grass sure did need cutting. “Gone fishin’,” he’d sign off, and you’d read the e-mail and smile and secretly hope that next time he’d send over a photo of the big one that didn’t get away.

Our condolences to the family. Lt. Cassada will be very much missed.


On to the news:

Members of the General Assembly kicked off the 2013 session in impressively appalling fashion this week as State Sen. John Watkins (R-Powhatan) revealed an inconvenient bit of news about the bill he’s planning to introduce to regulate uranium mining in Virginia.

Watkins, who is leading the charge to overturn Virginia’s three-decades-old ban on the mining and milling of radioactive ore, serves as vice-chair of the Virginia Coal and Energy Commission, which is tasked with advising legislators on energy issues (translation: feeding delegates and senators the industry line on how they’re supposed to vote). The commission met Monday in Richmond to consider Watkins’ ideas for regulating uranium mining, despite the fact his bill has yet to be filed and very few people know exactly what’s in it. Did this stop the commission? Do Hobbits rule the NBA?

Watkins’ big revelation came in response to questioning from fellow commission member Don Merricks, a Chatham Republican who has been a stalwart in the effort to stop the mining industry from getting its hooks (and digging equipment) into Southside Virginia’s rolling hills and watersheds. Pressed by Merricks to elaborate on the scope of his proposed legislation, Watkins admitted that his bill will apply solely to the proposed Coles Hill mine in nearby Pittsylvania County. In other words, there’s no need for the rest of the Commonwealth to fret about uranium mines popping up in their backyards.

Wonderful. Is there anything more infuriating than to be treated like a sacrificial lamb? One of the more potent arguments against lifting Virginia’s ban is that Southside Virginia would not be the only region to come into the industry’s crosshairs. Urban areas from Fairfax to Charlottesville would be vulnerable, too, with known deposits on the Occoquan River and in Orange County. According to Watkins, though, the overwhelming majority of Virginians should not suffer such worries. The rules will be different for them.

Watkins’ tender concern for everyone but the hicks and rubes of Southside Virginia who ought to just suck it up and be happy for the jobs that mining will bring is touching, but misplaced. (Makes you wonder if Watkins is responsible for that brilliant slogan by Virginia Uranium Inc.: “Stop whining. Start mining.”) Watkins would do his cause more good simply by being honest about what’s at stake: not the health, well-being and prosperity of Southside citizens and the state of Virginia, but the fat profits that his buddies in the industry expect to reap during the anticipated 30-year timeframe for digging up ore (and pay no mind to Coles Hill’s essentially limitless future as a federal Superfund site). Is the truth so hard to admit?

(To be fair, when asked why his legislation is limited in scope to the Coles Hill site, Sen. Watkins replied: “Because I want the bill to pass.” I guess that’s honesty of a certain sort.)

This is hardly the first time we’ve seen the uranium industry play a dirty hand in its attempt to lessen the political stink from lifting the ban. Everything we’ve seen up till now — from astroturf support groups springing up out of nowhere to the sneaky ministrations of bureaucrats, legislators and even the governor in pushing the process forward — inspires zero confidence that key Richmond power players intend to decide the uranium issue on the merits. I mean, really, if mining is such a great thing, why shouldn’t the rest of Virginia enjoy its bounty? We are constantly told that uranium mining is utterly safe, technologically advanced, a draw for just the sort of high-tech companies that every community with a pulse craves after, and a boon to these great United States of America. Why, then, should it be quarantined to Pittsylvania County? As for the communities that lie downriver from Coles Hill, they probably won’t get any jobs out of the deal, but how could they possibly ignore their patriotic duty and the economic opportunity to be part of the fallout zone?

The Coal and Energy Commission on Monday voted 11-2 to support Sen. Watkins’ phantom legislation spiking the uranium ban. In a related piece of bad news, Watkins indicated his bill will go to the Senate commerce committee, which he chairs, and which presumably is a more amenable landing pad than the natural resources committee where wary legislators from rural Virginia might actually hold sway. On the bright side, however, the list of legislators who have stated their opposition to lifting the moratorium continues to grow. By contrast, every time pro-mining legislators are forced to press their case in public, they end up revealing something fresh about the cynical motives that belie their efforts.

Maybe John Watkins thinks the legislature is craven enough to succumb to a divide-and-conquer strategy on uranium mining. And it’s true: No one ever got rich betting on the collective smarts of the Virginia General Assembly. Still, it would be surprising if lawmakers simply ignored the wishes of a majority of Southside residents and many others who have coalesced into a vocal, powerful opposition. John Watkins and others may want to restrict the industry’s reach to make mining more palatable for the mass of Virginians, but he may soon find that the masses have ideas of their own. No one is going to so easily restrict the debate that’s getting ready to unfold at the Capitol.


Finally, a correction to last week’s column: As part of our annual Pop Quiz of the Future, we ventured a number of predictions for 2013, including one that involved various scenarios that could only happen in the movies (more or less). You may remember the choice of retired Sinai principal Mike Wilborne pulling an “Erin Brockovich” and suing to get his LORP benefits from the School Board, even though I surmised Wilborne has never met Julia Roberts, the star of the blockbuster film, in person. Well, I should have known better: He has.

Mike bounded into the office soon after the column came out to inform us that, in fact, he once attended a Broadway show starring Ms. Roberts and, fulfilling his duty in life to serve as arm-candy for glamorous women, waited after the show to meet her in person. Obtaining her autograph after the show, Mike was pleased to report that Julia Roberts is proud, haughty, extremely beautiful and very talented, all qualities that do not apply when one is hapless not only at predicting the future, but can’t get the past right, either.

On a related note, my choice last week of Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly to be the 2013 Sportsman of the Year also ain’t looking so hot.

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