Virginia Uranium Inc., a tiny Chatham-based firm that wants to mine uranium in south central Virginia near Gretna, is flying more than a dozen state legislators to France to drum up momentum to end the state’s ban on uranium mining in next year’s General Assembly.
The lobbying effort includes all-expenses paid and three days off in Paris so the legislators can visit a closed uranium mine in the city of Bessines in western France, where uranium was extracted for a half a century until the late 1990s.
Virginia Uranium’s chutzpah is stunning. The four-year-old firm, led by a former Army and Foreign Service officer with no experience in the nuclear industry, had invited nearly all 140 state legislators, but most wisely declined. Those taking the trip this week include L. Scott Lingamfelter (R-Prince William), Del. Mark D. Sickles (D-Fairfax), Sen. Mamie E. Locke (D-Hampton) and Del. William R. Janis (R-Goochland). Sickles told The Post that he is paying his own airfare and lodging.
The pitch, in a word, stinks. If state legislators want to educate themselves about uranium mining, that’s commendable. But signing up for $10,000 or more in free travel expenses, although allowable under Virginia law, raises big questions about their integrity.
The makeup of Virginia Uranium raises other questions. Walter Coles, whose family owns Coles Hill, a farm dating back to the 18th century, runs the company with another local family represented by Henry Bowen of Sehva. The properties they own near Gretna and Chatham could harbor 110 million pounds of uranium.
It isn’t the first time that companies have sought the Coles uranium tract. Marline Uranium Corp., a subsidiary of Marline Oil Company, started exploring the Coles property in 1977, announcing a big uranium find in 1982 after drilling 210 holes. Yet the plan was stymied by uncertainties about the global uranium market and strong opposition from environmental groups. Cities in Hampton Roads also raised pointed questions because they get much of their drinking water from big lakes just downstream of the property.
Coles and his team lack experience in either the nuclear industry or minerals mining. A graduate of Fork Union Military Academy and the Citadel, Coles worked for a furniture company before serving with the Army in Vietnam. He later spent 30 years working for the U.S. Agency for International Development specializing in privatization and land development programs for the State Department. None of the other members of Virginia Uranium’s board has mining or nuclear experience either. Most are lawyers or investment bankers.
The firm raised $2.38 million of a targeted $4 million in equity financing earlier this year, according to a filing with the U.S. Securities & Exchange Commission. That was just a few weeks before a tsunami inundated the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station in Japan, causing the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.
The disaster raised questions about the future of global nuclear power and the need for uranium. Germany, for instance, has announced that it will be shutting down all of its commercial nuclear power stations within a decade or so.
Add it all up and one wonders what is going on down in Chatham, or, for that matter, in the bars, restaurants and hotel rooms of Paris.