House Panel Rejects Study of Uranium Mining

Sen. Frank W. Wagner (R-Virginia Beach), left, shown in January with Sen. Stephen D. Newman (R-Lynchburg) introduced the bill to study the safety of mining the deposit.
Sen. Frank W. Wagner (R-Virginia Beach), left, shown in January with Sen. Stephen D. Newman (R-Lynchburg) introduced the bill to study the safety of mining the deposit. (By Steve Helber -- Associated Press)
By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 4, 2008

RICHMOND, March 3 -- Lawmakers concerned about land, air and drinking water contamination killed a proposal Monday that would have allowed a study of whether uranium can be safely mined on 200 acres in south-central Virginia, eliminating any chance that the controversial bill could pass this year.

After more than an hour of debate, the House Rules Committee defeated a bill that opponents argued would be the first step toward lifting a 25-year-old state ban on uranium mining.

The decision was a blow to Virginia Uranium, a company that had aggressively lobbied the General Assembly to take the first step toward mining what is thought to be the largest deposit of uranium in the United States.

"I think caution is the best course," said Del. Clarke N. Hogan (R-Charlotte), whose district gets drinking water from the area. Hogan, a committee member, has been skeptical of the study for months and is widely credited with convincing other House members to oppose it.

The bill would have created a 17-member commission to oversee a National Academy of Sciences study. The company would have picked up the cost of the report, which had been estimated at $1 million or more. If the study had shown that mining could be done safely, Virginia Uranium could have used it as leverage in asking the General Assembly to lift the ban on uranium mining.

"What's the harm in doing the study?" asked Buddy Mayhew, a Pittsylvania County tobacco farmer who came to Richmond to speak at the meeting. "Let's have a study. Let's have an independent study by a group that doesn't have a dog in this hunt. It's nothing to them either way."

The Senate had voted 36 to 4 last month to approve the study, with some senators saying they did not support uranium mining but did not mind studying the issue.

Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) also supported a study, and a state energy report released last fall recommended one as the global demand for alternative fuels grows.

It is estimated there are 110 million pounds of uranium, worth almost $10 billion, under Pittsylvania County. That would be enough to supply all of the country's nuclear power plants for about two years.

"We are in a big energy mess in this country," said state Sen. Frank W. Wagner (R-Virginia Beach), who introduced the bill. "If we don't want to develop our own energy sources, I think we're making a big mistake."

Virginia banned uranium mining in 1982, soon after the uranium was discovered underneath a plot of land used to raise cattle, hay and timber.

Uranium has never been mined on the East Coast, according to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. In the United States, it is mined in drier, less-populated areas in Utah, New Mexico, Wyoming and Nebraska.

Walter Coles, who owns much of the Pittsylvania tract, has said the mining can be done safely and in a way that would benefit the community through jobs, taxes and economic development. He did not speak at the meeting and declined to comment after the vote.

Environmental groups, including the Piedmont Environmental Council and the Southern Environmental Law Center, say uranium should not be mined in highly populated Virginia, with its relatively rainy climate. They say they are worried that radioactive materials could contaminate natural resources, cause cancer or other illnesses and have long-term effects on plants and animals.

"There is really a lot that Virginia Uranium needs to do before you take the first step in lifting the uranium moratorium," said Kay Slaughter of the Southern Environmental Law Center.

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