The question of whether to allow uranium mining in Virginia could come down to a debate over the environment, energy and the economy.
A panel convened to discuss the issue on Wednesday at the annual AP Day at the Capitol in Richmond largely agreed that proposed guidelines outlined in a recently published state-ordered report won’t completely eliminate the potential risks associated with uranium mining. There was less consensus about whether those risks outweighed the possible benefits.
“You’re looking at an extraordinarily high-stakes gamble,” said Cale Jaffe, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center. “Right now, it’s not a gamble Virginia should take.”
The commonwealth has been under a 30-year moratorium on issuing uranium-mining permits until regulations are established for safely mining the mineral. Lifting the ban could be the first step in clearing the way to mine a 119-million-pound uranium lode in south central Virginia.
“This decision is the go (or) no-go point,” Jaffe said. “If you lift the ban, you’ve started down the process. You don’t buy the ticket and get on the train if you don’t plan on going to the big city. This is that moment for Virginia right now.”
The General Assembly is likely to take up the issue during its upcoming session, and a proposed bill is in the works. Del. Donald W. Merricks, (R-Pittsylvania), whose district includes the uranium site, said the issue has weighed heavily on him as a legislator.
“It would be very easy to make a decision because we need the money,” Merricks said. “There’s a lot of ifs. It’s a lot of things that have to be looked at. We can’t get this wrong.”
The uranium site, considered the largest in the nation and seventh largest in the world, is worth an estimated $10 billion. The deposit could be a boon to the economically depressed Southside region of the state, which suffers from high unemployment and few options for growth.
And investors with Virginia Uranium, the company seeking to mine the Coles Hill site, have put $7 billion into the project.
“Do you really think we’re just going to give up and walk away?” said spokesman Patrick Wales. “We’re not going anywhere.”
Merricks said he worries a uranium mine could create a stigma that would turn off potential new residents and businesses.
“We’ll be known as the uranium mill,” Merricks said, comparing the perception to that of the southwest region of the state, which is synonymous with the coal industry. “That could be hard to overcome in trying to attract other industries.
Wales argued that opening uranium mining in Virginia is an important step toward closing the “energy gap on the East Coast.” He cited that the Coles Hill uranium lode has the potential to create 20 times more energy than all of the oil estimated to be off the Virginia coast, and would increase the nation’s uranium production by 50 percent.
Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) also addressed the issue later Thursday. He said he has not yet read the Uranium Working Group’s report, but plans to meet with stakeholders, lawmakers and the report’s authors in coming days.
“There’s only one factor that matters to me: Can we create a high degree of certainty that regulations that might be put in place? . . . Can provide for a high degree of public safety, including health, water, air and the rest?” McDonnell told reporters. “I’m not going to base this on political or financial issues.”