As Gov. Bob McDonnell’s administration begins developing regulations for uranium mining, some activists are expressing concerns about the process.
In a letter to the administration, representatives of the Piedmont
Environmental Council, Virginia League of Conservation Voters and Sierra Club say they worry that the regulations, which are supposed to be written over the next year, will be done too quickly, behind closed doors and with little input from the public.
Another group of business leaders from Southside Virginia called for additional data instead before the regulations are developed.
In January, McDonnell (R) recommended that the state further study the impact of excavating a site in Southside Virginia that contains the nation’s largest known uranium deposit before lifting a mining ban.
He created a multi-agency group — comprised of staff from the Virginia Department of Health, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality and Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy — to study the site and draft regulations for a possible new mining industry in Virginia. The group will accept public comments during four open meetings and on a new Web site.
At a subcommittee of the Coal and Energy Commission on Wednesday, administration officials said they will have a series of public meetings in June (environmental impacts), August (water and air quality), October (public health and safety) and November (worker health and safety).
“The purpose of the working group is to allow our state agency subject matter experts to methodically deliberate the scientific issues facing uranium mining in Virginia, including the issues raised by previous studies. It is meant to inform the governor about their findings,’’ said Jeff Caldwell, a McDonnell spokesman. “Ultimately, it is the General Assembly that must decide whether or not to lift the uranium moratorium. If the General Assembly directs the agencies to promulgate appropriate regulations governing uranium mining, that process will also be open to public review and comment.”
Uranium was found three decades ago in Coles Hill, near Chatham, a small town in Pittsylvania County. The deposit, under farmland, begins nears the surface and runs about 1,500 feet deep.
Virginia Uranium, the company seeking to mine the site in Southside, had lobbied aggressively to lift the ban this year. Its tests indicate that there is about 119 million pounds of uranium — worth as much as $10 billion — below the surface. It is the world's seventh-largest known deposit — enough to supply all U.S. nuclear power plants for about two years or satisfy Virginia's demands for 75 years.
Environmental groups — worried that a uranium mine in Virginia's relatively rainy climate could contaminate natural resources, cause illness and have long-term effects on plants and animals — are disappointed that McDonnell wants to begin preparing regulations.
Company officials say that additional safeguards have been put in place since mining at Coles Hill was first considered and that the federal government regulates uranium mines and mills with regard to safety and homeland security.