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Posted at 10:31 AM ET, 03/21/2012

Va. uranium mining: Many questions, few answers


For the 50 or so people sitting in the quaint Pepsi-Cola building Tuesday in Danville’s tobacco warehouse district, the information seemed to spawn more frustration than clarity. They had gathered to hear two economic impact reports regarding controversial plans by Virginia Uranium to mine an ore deposit a dozen miles to the north in Chatham.

“The bottom line is that we don’t know what will happen in the future,” said Katherine Heller, a senior economist at RTI International. The Research Triangle Park, N.C., consulting firm had been hired by regional agencies to estimate what will happen if Virginia Uranium, owned by local and Canadian investors, proceeds with its plans for a uranium mining and milling complex.

The RTI report, in addition to one prepared for the state by Chmura Economics and Analytics in Richmond, says that barring human error and with adequate regulation, the uranium project could be a boon for the depressed, former textile and furniture region. RTI predicts it could bring in 724 jobs and $162 million a year to the area. Chmura’s report says essentially the same thing.

Those predictions, however, assume that the state overcomes big hurdles, as yet another report by the National Academy of Sciences says it must face. Among those obstacles:

● Virginia has no laws regulating uranium mining or milling ore into usable yellowcake. Gov. Robert F. McDonnell recommended delaying any decision on voiding a nearly three-decades-long ban on uranium mining in the state until more study is done. He has set up a group to study the issue.

● According to RTI, the tailings from the uranium deposit that runs 1,500-feet deep would be stored permanently underground in an area near vital drinking water supplies. According to Heller, those dump sites will have to be monitored indefinitely, most likely for thousands of years. There are no plans yet to do such monitoring or how to pay for it.

● There are no plans yet on requiring Virginia Uranium to set aside funds in escrow to help localities deal with the costs and loss of businesses and taxes due a spill or accident. It also isn’t clear who will pay for the necessary state regulators and inspectors, especially with the state’s budget so tight.

● There are lingering questions and confusion over how transparent the McDonnell group will be as it studies uranium mining. At first, Cathie J. France, a deputy director of the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy who heads the uranium committee, said that her group would not hold public hearings but would accept written comment and provide information on a Web page. After public criticism, Martin L. Kent, McDonnell’s chief of staff, wrote legislators that due to “misunderstanding” there had been a “mischaracterization” of how public comment will be obtained. He said that the group will “accept public comment during four open meetings.”

● The economic health of the uranium plans depends on highly volatile global uranium pricing. Heller said that RTI based its predictions on a “middle high” estimate that could be subject to big and unexpected swings.

The bottom line is that any thought of proceeding with the uranium plan seems terribly premature. McDonnell wants his committee to make recommendations to the 2013 General Assembly. That may be way too soon.

Peter Galuszka blogs at Bacon’s Rebellion. The Local Blog Network is a group of bloggers from around the D.C. region who have agreed to make regular contributions to All Opinions Are Local.

By  |  10:31 AM ET, 03/21/2012

 
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