Senate Majority Leader Richard Saslaw said he not only refused a trip to France to see a closed uranium mine, but he declined a helicopter ride to Southside Virginia to see what is thought to be the largest deposit of uranium in the United States.
Saslaw (D-Fairfax) and Speaker Bill Howell (R-Stafford) both were offered all-expenses paid trips to France by Virginia Uranium, a company pushing lawmakers to lift a ban on uranium mining in the state.
“I just prefer not to do that,’’ Saslaw said.
Howell said he “pretty quickly told them no” because he is busy with his job and other things in his life and couldn’t afford the time to go overseas. “I didn’t see where it would do any good,’’ he said.
Fourteen legislators flew to Paris this month to see a closed mine in Bessines in western France, where uranium was excavated for 50 years until the late 1990s. The five-day trip was expected to cost $10,000 a person — though at least two legislators said they paid their own way, one after he read about the cost in the media.
Saslaw said he did not give members of his caucus any advice on whether they should go on the trip. Howell declined to say what he told his members, but we hear that he advised them not to go.
“I’m not critical of those people,’’ Saslaw said. “They went over there with every intention to learn.”
Virginia Uranium invited nearly all 140 state lawmakers to France as it looks to mine a pair of uranium deposits found three decades ago in Coles Hill, near Chatham, a small town in Pittsylvania County. They begin at the surface, under land used to raise cattle, hay and timber, and run about 1,500 feet deep.
The company said tests indicate that about 119 million pounds of uranium — worth as much as $10 billion — are below the surface. That would be enough to supply all of the country’s nuclear power plants for about two years or all of Virginia’s demands for 75 years.
Saslaw said Virginia Uranium offered him and Sen. Janet Howell (D-Fairfax) a helicopter ride to the site from their Northern Virginia homes, but the two have decided to drive more than five hours each way to Pittsylvania County later this year instead.
Howell said he has no intention of seeing the site because he’s not sure he will see more than a “hill.”
“No one’s invited me,’’ he said.
Virginia Uranium hopes to persuade the General Assembly to repeal the nearly three-decade ban on mining at its regular session in January by convincing lawmakers that mining can be done safely.
The state’s Coal and Energy Commission asked the National Academy of Sciences and the Virginia Center for Coal and Energy Research at Virginia Tech to review whether the uranium can be safely mined.
Most lawmakers, including Gov. Bob McDonnell (R), are anxiously awaiting results from the study.
“If it can be done safely, then I don’t have a problem with it,” Saslaw said.
Howell said he has not made up his mind on whether mining would a good idea.