RICHMOND — A proposal to lift Virginia’s 30-year ban on uranium mining advanced Monday when a legislative panel recommended that the General Assembly address the issue this year.
The Virginia Commission on Coal and Energy approved a motion in favor of legislation after the Uranium Working Group presented the findings from its report, which was released last month. The group was established by Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) to describe what kind of regulatory framework would be necessary if legislators decide to lift the moratorium.
Sen. John C. Watkins (R-Midlothian) said he expects to submit legislation to lift the ban as early as next week. His proposal would apply only to the proposed mining site in south-central Virginia owned by Virginia Uranium.
“This isolates it to Coles Hill,” said Watkins, whose legislation would not seek to lift the ban statewide. “I want the bill to pass. If there were other entities that were doing research and development in other places in the state . . . I don’t know of any.”
Virginia Uranium spokesman Patrick Wales, who spoke at the commission’s hearing on Monday, called the vote “a big step forward for our project.”
“We eagerly await Senator Watkins’ bill and look forward to the next step in the legislative process,” Wales said in a statement.
Lifting the ban could clear the way for supporters to mine what is considered the country’s largest-known uranium deposit. The 119 million-pound, $7 billion uranium lode in the small town of Chatham has divided the community, pitting economic interests against environmental and safety concerns. The issue is likely to be one of the most contentious of the legislative session, which begins Wednesday.
The commission’s lone lawmaker from the district where the mine would be located voted against moving forward with legislation. Del. Donald W. Merricks (R-Pittsylvania) said he thought the vote was premature.
“We’re voting on a concept that is not fully developed,” he told the commission before its decision. “We don’t have a clear majority that this is what people want. I would love to see this happen in a safe way. I just don’t think we’re at that point.”
Watkins, who signaled he would file a bill last month, said it is not unusual for the commission to conduct such a vote ahead of legislation. He said that after the legislation is filed, it would likely head to the Commerce and Labor Committee, which he chairs.
Nathan Lott, spokesman for Keep the Ban, said the group was disappointed with the commission’s vote but not surprised. “The commission has sided with mining interests against the interests of Southside Virginians,” Lott said in a statement. “We are confident that a majority of lawmakers will recognize that Virginia’s current moratorium on uranium mining and milling is sound public policy and will vote to keep it in place.”
In a letter to the commission dated Sunday, McDonnell said he is not ready to weigh in on the debate. “I can say at this point the views appear to be mixed, giving reasons both for and against proceeding forward,” he said. “I feel that I need to wait for the final report . . . before making any decision about whether to take a position on this issue.”
The working group’s final report is expected Jan. 15.