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Good for thee, not me

SoVaNow.com / January 09, 2013
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 introducing 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 earn big bucks in 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.

***

It’s the same old story with each new year: the calendar flips over, and another major employer shuts down. In late 2011 and early 2012, the community was stunned by the news that Mecklenburg Correctional Center would close. The year before that, Glaize Components in La Crosse was out of business before the first quarter had ended. Early 2011 also witnessed the demise of the Virginia Employment Commission’s South Hill office. It doesn’t cut any closer to the bone than that.

This year, Home Care Delivered is ceasing operations, costing about 100 jobs at its Airport Industrial Park location in La Crosse. Home Care, we hardly knew ye. The industry arrived at La Crosse in 2011 with the usual fanfare and barely survived a year. Not only is it getting harder to recruit payroll-intensive manufacturers to the community, it’s becoming harder to find ones that are stable enough or committed enough to put down lasting roots.

The good news is that Home Care’s demise comes at a time when overall economic conditions are improving somewhat, although not nearly fast enough for anyone’s tastes. Whether the upward trend will continue remains to be seen; lots can go wrong going forward, although hopefully Washington has lost some of its taste for destructive nonsensical crises with that entire fiscal cliff business more or less behind us.

The demise of dozens of jobs at Home Care Delivered is a blow, no doubt. But the cold of winter inevitably gives way to the warmth of spring and the growth we associate with the season. Mecklenburg is lucky to have two lakes and a relative abundance of other assets around which to build a viable economy, its other struggles notwithstanding. In the wake of the bad news about Home Care, what looms as the best short-term boost for the local economy? How about some rain to refill Buggs Island Lake?

***

Reader Mike Stembridge writes in today to offer a rejoinder to our annual Pop Quiz of the Future, the topic of last week’s column. As you can no doubt tell from Stembridge’s Viewpoint letter, we don’t agree on much.

But I was intrigued by Stembridge’s concurrence on question #4 of the quiz — the level of intrigue heightened by the fact I had totally forgotten the gist of the question, as past columns fade into the ether and new ones come stumbling in out of the fog. The point of our agreement? Alas, that Mecklenburg teachers won’t receive a raise this year. Which offers me the opportunity to repeat one of my favorite disclaimers: Always happy to be wrong.

On a related note, it looks as though my prediction that Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly will be named Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year will be proven incorrect. Sorta in the same way that the captain of the Titanic thought it would be a good idea to skim up against the iceberg because the ship’s bartender needed a fresh supply of crushed ice.

Oh well, at least I didn’t go with another choice on the list, that for Super Bowl MVP Robert Griffin III.





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