RICHMOND — Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling traveled to Danville on Friday to announce his opposition to lifting a ban on uranium mining in Virginia, a surprise move by the state’s chief jobs-creation officer that put him uncharacteristically out in front of Gov. Robert F. McDonnell.
Bolling (R), who was raised in coal country and spent much of the past three years trying to bring new jobs to Virginia, said he considered the potential economic benefits of mining. But he ultimately decided that the environmental risks were too great and that the operation could scare away other investments in economically depressed south central Virginia. He also noted local opposition.
“If the political leaders and business leaders and community leaders in the part of the state that stands to gain the most don’t want the ban lifted, that’s a pretty persuasive argument to me,” he said in an interview.
The timing of the announcement had political Virginia abuzz about what it meant for Bolling’s prospects as much as mining’s.
It came two weeks after Bolling suspended his bid for the GOP nomination for governor while also saying he would not endorse Republican rival Ken Cuccinelli II and might run as an independent. And it came on the very day that Cuccinelli, the state attorney general, personally took the Environmental Protection Agency to court.
“This is a move by someone who is far from through with politics,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a University of Mary Washington political science professor. “This very visible step, very early in the process of political deliberation, suggests the lieutenant governor is charting a new, more moderate Republican path. Or perhaps we should say, a new, more moderate independent path.”
Southside Virginia is home to the country’s largest known uranium deposit, but a 30-year ban prevents it from being mined. A working group established by McDonnell (R) has been exploring whether the 119 million-pound, $10 billion uranium lode can be safely mined. The issue is likely to be one of the most contentious of the next General Assembly session, which begins Jan. 9.
In Danville with local business and political leaders, Bolling said he shared their concern that lifting the ban would actually hurt the economy by stigmatizing the area.
Bolling said he informed McDonnell, who is said to still be studying the issue, before making his announcement. He caught many others by surprise.
“I am disappointed by the Lt. Governor’s position on uranium mining,” Sen. John C. Watkins (R-Powhatan), who has proposed a bill to establish rules and standards for uranium mining, said in a written statement. “The legislation I am working on is not even complete and may very well address his concerns. I would have expected a more thoughtful approach to this issue from Bill given his commitment to creating jobs, particularly in Southside.”
In bowing out of the GOP nomination battle, Bolling vowed to be an “independent voice” in the campaign. Bolling said Friday that he remains undecided about whether he will run as a third-party candidate. But he said he is relishing the opportunity to speak more frankly.
“A lot of these big issues, I intend to speak out,” he said.
Bolling said it was coincidence that he made his announcement the same day Cuccinelli was on national television and in federal court in Alexandria arguing against what he called “massive” regulatory overreach by the EPA related to sediment buildup along the Accotink Creek Watershed in Fairfax County. (“I don’t keep up with Mr. Cuccinelli’s schedule,” Bolling said.)
But some political observers thought the juxtaposition could be useful for Bolling should he seek to woo swing voters in 2013 or beyond: As Cuccinelli was duking it out with the EPA, Bolling was making the Sierra Club so happy that it e-mailed around a YouTube video of his announcement.
As Bolling staked out his position on uranium, those still in the governor’s race to succeed term-limited McDonnell were less clear.
“Southside Virginia is in need of jobs and industry — but we owe it to the people that public safety and Virginia’s natural resources are protected,” Cuccinelli said in an e-mailed statement. “I am confident that continued study and analysis will provide the answers all are looking for.”
The likely Democratic nominee, former Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe, is said to be undecided.
“Any economic proposal in these tough times merits a hard look,” said McAuliffe spokesman Josh Schwerin. “However, Terry would need to be certain that mining uranium can be done safely and cleaned up completely before a moratorium is lifted.”
Corinne Reilly contributed to this report.