By Rex Springston
A General Assembly study panel voted Monday in favor of lifting Virginia’s 31- year ban on uranium mining — but only in one spot in Southside Virginia.
The panel, the Virginia Coal and Energy Commission, endorsed a proposal by Sen. John Watkins, R-Powhatan, to require the state to draft uranium- mining regulations, a move Watkins announced weeks ago.
But Watkins, a member of the panel, said Monday that his proposal would allow mining only in Pittsylvania County, where a company has long been seeking to operate.
Asked why he is structuring his proposal that way, Watkins told reporters, “Because I want the bill to pass.”
The issue goes now to the legislature, where both sides predict a close fight. The session begins Wednesday.
Mining opponents have tried to raise concerns statewide, arguing that if the ban were lifted, uranium could be mined someday in places including Culpeper, Fauquier, Madison and Orange counties.
Supporters of a Pittsylvania mine say there is not enough uranium in those other places to make mining likely.
After the energy commission’s vote — 11-2 with three abstentions — a few opponents hollered and booed at the
Patrick Wales, project manager for Virginia Uranium, speaks during a meeting of the Virginia Commission on Coal and Energy at the Capitol Monday, Jan. 7, 2013 in Richmond, Va. The committee approved a motion to draft a bill calling for mining regulations to be written. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
panel members. “Your names will live in infamy!” one cried out.
Watkins said he would unveil his bill in about a week. If it passes, anyone wanting to mine uranium beyond the proposed Pittsylvania site would need separate legislation.
That didn’t satisfy mining opponent Glen Besa, director of the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club. “Once you open the door there (in Pittsylvania), you subject the rest of the state to mining.”
The energy commission includes several pro-mining members, so Monday’s vote was not a surprise, Besa said.
Virginia Uranium Inc. wants to mine and mill the radioactive metal from what it says is a 119 million-pound deposit, worth about $7 billion, in Pittsylvania near Danville. Uranium fuels nuclear power plants.
The company’s project manager, Patrick Wales, said after Monday’s vote: “This is a big step forward for our project. We are extremely grateful for the time and effort that the Coal and Energy Commission has put into this. We eagerly await Senator Watkins’ bill and look forward to the next step in the legislative process.”
The company says the operation would be modern and safe and would create hundreds of jobs in economically struggling Southside. Opponents fear the operation could cause air and water pollution.
Before voting, the panel members heard arguments from both sides.
Ralph L. “Bill” Axselle Jr., a former Henrico County delegate representing Southside opponents, called a vote on allowing mining “a decision that has consequences not for decades, not for generations, but forever.”
The Rev. Antonel Myler, pastor of a Baptist church near the proposed Pittsylvania site, said the area needs jobs. “I minister to people who have been unemployed. It is not a pretty sight.”
Watkins stressed that his bill wouldn’t give Virginia Uranium approval to mine. That would come years from now and only if the company complies with state and federal rules.