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The sounds of silence

SoVaNow.com / October 04, 2012
A quick Internet search this morning reveals considerable doubt about who first came up with the famous quotation: “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than open one’s mouth and remove all doubt.”

Think it could have been the Pittsylvania County Board of Supervisors?

Obviously not. But the board majority in the county next door sure does seem to be spooked by the notion that Pittsylvania should say anything of substance about the biggest issue to hit Southside Virginia since Lord knows when. Upriver, downriver, all across the Commonwealth: Local governments, business alliances, religious groups, environmental organizations and gobs of others have found it in themselves to take a position on uranium mining in Virginia. But not Pittsylvania County, home to Coles Hill! An issue that is positively radioactive — figuratively and literally, no exaggerating this time — seems to have rendered the supervisors’ vocal chords inoperative.

This perplexing reality was on display Monday night as the Pittsylvania board punted on a resolution that calls on Virginia to keep its mining ban. The resolution was introduced by Marshall Ecker, who represents the county’s Staunton River District. I know little if anything about what passes for inside baseball insofar as Pittsylvania County politics are concerned, so maybe there’s some unspoken reason why the supervisors refused to take action, other than send the matter to committee. If such a rationale exists, though, the Board owes it to its constituents — to say nothing of the rest of the world — to speak up now.

Tim Barber, the Pittsylvania board chairman, took a weak stab at it, telling the packed room at the Chatham courthouse that he is “as afraid of this stuff as anybody” but the Board must come up with “the right resolution” on uranium. He offered no further thoughts on what a “right” resolution should say. For the record, Ecker’s proposed resolution had a simple purpose: to register Pittsylvania’s support for the ban. If Barber is suggesting there is something tactically wrong about this approach, he ought to explain what the defects are, and maybe even suggest an alternative.

Let’s take Barber at his word: The high-minded concern presumably would be that Pittsylvania runs the risk of somehow freezing itself out of the great debate in Richmond, coming up in the 2013 session, if it takes a no-shade-of-gray stance on uranium mining. Such a concern, assuming it even exists, strikes me as absurd, given the General Assembly’s tendency most of the time to pay insufficient heed to public opinion unless people are shouting from the rooftops. Nevertheless, let’s run with the thought: Here are just a few ideas for a resolution that might help to protect Pittsylvania’s future well-being and safety without going so far as to send an impolite message of “bugger off” to Virginia Uranium Inc. and fellow travelers in Richmond:

Supervisors could insist that the legislature apply the lifting of the moratorium equally to all Virginians, not just in such a way that solely affects residents of Pittsylvania County and downstream communities. Everyone understands the “good-for-me, good-for-thee” rule. Whether they’ll be keen to vote for it is another matter.

Pittsylvania could insist on the creation of a fund to compensate victims of uranium mining, should harm ensue from the Coles Hill project. This idea actually was included in a much milder resolution that Ecker and fellow supervisor Jesse Barksdale introduced a month ago, prompting a mysterious no-vote by the Pittsylvania board and political freakout involving its state senator (more on this in a minute). A compensation fund was a good idea then, and would be better idea now with an expansion to cover potential out-of-county victims downriver from the proposed mine. Such as in Halifax, say.

Pittsylvania could urge the legislature to impose a lobbying ban on Virginia Uranium in return for lifting the moratorium. The essential condition before uranium mining can be allowed, we are constantly told, is the establishment of a robust and pro-active regulatory scheme to ensure Virginia Uranium Inc. lives up to its promises to run the safest mining operation in the world. Surely a company this obsessed with upholding best practices on a day-to-day basis would have no time (nor need) to butter up legislators or try to coax them into loosening regulations in the name of “job creation.” No need at all!

These were just some thoughts that came to mind during a half-hour workout at the YMCA. To be clear, I don’t think the General Assembly should take any action at all, other than to keep the ban in place. But if the Pittsylvania board is truly sincere about wanting to protect its citizens, but doubts the effectiveness of a statement that translates as a flat “no,” it can do far better in terms of making its voice heard in Richmond than to do nothing at all. Because as matters now stand, “nothing” sums up the relevant work product of the Pittsylvania board.

“Open one’s mouth and remove all doubt” — the phrase charmingly refers to the chance a man may be thought a fool, but this should be way down the list of concerns for Pittsylvania’s supervisors. There are worse things than coming across as a simpleton. Just ask State Senator Bill Stanley, who became ensnared in the politics of uranium mining after lobbying the Pittsylvania board not to vote on Ecker and Barksdale’s previous resolution on Sept. 4. This is indeed the action that the supervisors took, whether because of Stanley’s intervention or not, but whatever success the senator derivea from the episode came at a heavy price.

Stanley made phone calls to supervisors once word of the proposed resolution got out, but he didn’t count on one board member, Jerry Hagerman, taping the conversation. (Hagerman, a former law enforcement officer, says he tapes his phone calls to help keep track of what constituents are telling him.) Stanley flat stated to Hagerman that he was calling at the urging of the governor, which put Bob McDonnell in a bad light since the governor has pledged not to stick his nose into local debates on mining. When McDonnell’s people put out a statement disavowing Stanley’s remarks, the senator crumbled like a bag of cookies long past its expiration date. Stanley said he “misspoke,” which in itself is a form of misspeaking. Either he was telling the truth originally, or subsequently, but the failure to do so at all times is more than a misquote. A different word comes to mind.

With Bill Clinton assuming his place on the national stage as a widely-admired and likeable figure, it’s probably time to hand off his “Slick Willie” nickname to someone else. I can think of a certain state senator from Southside-southwest Virginia who qualifies. (Stanley’s district runs from Galax to Halifax.) Yet no one is going to apply the slick moniker to any member of the Pittsylvania board; James Snead, one of the members who has resisted taking up Ecker’s resolution, comes across as the sort of figure that anyone who covers local government for a living has no doubt seen before: the stubborn old hound who isn’t going to be mau-mau’d into doing anything until he’s darn ready to do it. (Think of Snead as Pittsylvania’s answer to the late Dickie Abbott.) The overwhelming sentiment in the crowd, as best as I could tell, is that the four-member majority that keeps balking at a resolution has been bought out by Virginia Uranium. One or two members, I could see. But four? Not likely.

An alternative explanation is that supervisors are laboring under some truly woeful misconceptions. Such as: The risks of uranium mining have been overstated, or popular sentiment isn’t as clear-cut as mining opponents make it out to be. On the latter score, it’s certainly true that the 10-1 split between anti- and pro-VUI speakers that you typically see at public forums (and that’s being charitable to the pro- contingent) probably isn’t representative of the population as a whole. But the one opinion survey we do have, from a polling outfit at VCU, reports that a majority of residents in Pittsylvania County don’t want mining take place in their backyard. And this is from the area that has the most to gain economically! It would have been useful to widen the survey to sample opinion in Halifax, Mecklenburg and other downstream communities. The skeptical majority, one suspects, would surely have strengthened into a hair-on-fire supermajority.

As for the risks, there’s nothing anyone can say at this point that is going to trump the National Academy of Sciences study, which made this reader’s blood run cold with its warnings on the unavoidable risks of mining uranium and cautionary tales of sloppiness and greed by the industry. Most human activities can lead to a bad result, which is why we have regulations in the first place, but few pose so heavy a risk as to threaten an entire region’s water supply. The probability of an accident doesn’t have to be high to be unacceptable. Oh come on, say mining advocates, Virginia can impose suitable regulations to protect Pittsylvania and its neighbors. The reason we don’t accept such logic is simple: What if these people are wrong?

A recurring theme at Monday night’s meeting was that Pittsylvania County must do what it can to control its own destiny. The board minority that is calling on Richmond to keep the ban has a simple argument to make: Only by continuing the moratorium can the county be absolutely protected from harm. I don’t know what the argument of the refuseniks is. Do they think mining would be a good thing for Pittsylvania County? If so, they really ought to share this view with others. Would a resolution at this juncture be somehow premature? Please. Or are the supervisors jockeying for position, trying to get the most for Pittsylvania out of the General Assembly, and don’t believe that a unequivocal “no” resolution is the way to go? This was more or less the approach that Sen. Stanley claimed to be taking, and all he got for his efforts was the shredding of his credibility. (The one good thing to come out of l’affair Stanley was a promise by the senator to vote to uphold the moratorium. This marked a first.) The Pittsylvania board is a unique position: Like the rest of Southside, it can’t control what the legislature decides to do. But its voice will be more important than most, and difficult for Richmond to ignore. Provided such a voice exists.

Silence can be a sign of shyness or uncertainty, even the wisdom to know that the other people in the room doing the talking are smarter than one’s self. Pittsylvania, indeed all of Southside, need not burden itself with such hesitations. In a few months the legislature is expected to vote on lifting the uranium mining ban. If people in positions of leadership have something to say about the issue, now is the time to say it.

Better to be thought a fool than a less honorable sort.











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