12 Virginia lawmakers, activists flying to Canada at expense of mining firm

RICHMOND — About 12 lawmakers and community leaders are flying to Canada this month at the expense of a company pushing the General Assembly to lift a moratorium on uranium mining in Virginia.

Virginia Uranium invited state legislators and local elected officials from southside Virginia to visit an active mine near Saskatchewan as it tries to convince them of the benefits to mining what is thought to be the largest deposit of uranium in the United States, in south central Virginia.

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The trip is similar to one that about a dozen legislators took this summer to France that came under criticism from environmental groups concerned that unearthed radioactive material could contaminate the state’s land, air and drinking water.

Larry Campbell, a member of the Danville City Council, said he had committed to going on the three-day trip to Canada but changed his mind when some residents told him they did not think the company should pay for the trip.

“Citizens thought I was being bought off,” Campbell said in an interview.

Virginia Uranium officials also invited members of the Pittsylvania County Board of Supervisors and community activists. Fifteen people will travel to Canada, but the company declined to name them.

“This is a very important issue. No doubt about it,” said Patrick Wales, the company’s project manager. “There’s no replacement for having individuals see things themselves.”

Wales said the company is finalizing details of the trip and could not release an itinerary, cost estimate or the specific mine that will be visited. But he said a trip 400 miles into the Canadian wilderness is not a “vacation.”

Virginia Uranium already sent at least one other lawmaker — Sen. Frank W. Wagner (R-Virginia Beach) — to Saskatchewan this year. Wagner, who also went to France last year, said that the trips were beneficial but that he hasn’t made up his mind about whether he supports uranium mining.

Two uranium deposits were found three decades ago in Coles Hill, near Chatham, a small town in Pittsylvania. They begin at the ground’s 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 the country’s nuclear power plants for about two years or all of Virginia’s demands for 75 years.

Virginia Uranium hopes to persuade the General Assembly to repeal the nearly three-decade moratorium on mining at its session in January.

Environmental groups say the Saskatchewan mine differs from the one in southside Virginia in two important ways — the uranium ore is richer, so less waste is left behind, and the mine is geographically isolated, sitting about 430 miles north of the next major city.

Cale Jaffe, senior lawyer with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said lawmakers had the opportunity to visit Saskatchewan in June for a public meeting sponsored by the National Academy of Sciences.

“The private tour now being offered and paid for by the industry will be closed to the public,’’ he said. “That’s no substitute for an open and fair debate.”

The trips are permissible under Virginia law and must be reported to the state as gifts next year. But some lawmakers, facing tough fall elections, have declined to go.

Since 2007, when Virginia Uranium was incorporated, the company has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars lobbying the General Assembly. It has donated $91,650 to candidates in Virginia since 2008 and retained four of Richmond’s most influential lobbying firms, as well as a top public relations firm.

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. A report is expected in December.

 
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