Va. Commission to Study Effects of Uranium Mining

"I think it's important to study to know what the options are," Gov. Timothy M. Kaine says of mining. (By Karin Cooper -- Associated Press)
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By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 29, 2008

RICHMOND -- Despite opposition from the General Assembly, a state commission will study whether more than 60,000 tons of uranium can be safely mined in rural south-central Virginia in what is thought to be the nation's largest undeveloped uranium deposit.

The Coal and Energy Commission will ask the National Academy of Sciences and the Virginia Center for Coal and Energy Research at Virginia Tech to review concerns about possible land, air and drinking water contamination, among other economic and health issues.

Del. Terry G. Kilgore (R-Scott), the commission's chairman, said members want to do their part to search for alternative energy sources that could help decrease the nation's reliance on foreign countries.

"If we're going to go forward with nuclear power in the future, we can't afford to import from Russia and Canada,'' he said.

The commission has power to authorize a study but not to lift a 25-year-old state ban on uranium mining enacted by the General Assembly soon after the uranium was discovered. Supporters of mining, including the company that owns the land, hope the results of the study will persuade legislators to reconsider and, eventually, repeal the ban.

"People are beginning to recognize the need to examine a deposit of this nature,'' said Walter Coles, who retired from the federal government and formed Virginia Uranium, which owns the land, two years ago. "There is a lot of recognition that we need to explore the potential."

Two uranium veins were found three decades ago in Coles Hill, near Chatham, a small town in Pittsylvania County not far from the North Carolina border. They begin at the ground's surface, under land used to raise cattle, hay and timber, and run about 800 feet deep.

Tests indicate that about 60,000 tons of uranium, worth $10 billion, are below the surface, the company says. That would be enough to supply all the country's nuclear power plants for about two years.

Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) supports a study, and a state energy report last year recommended one as the global demand for alternative fuels continues to grow.

"I think it's important to study to know what the options are,'' Kaine said. "I recognize the concerns. . . . [But] as long as the study would be done by a credible body . . . they would be very objective about what the risks are."

Kaine said he could have ordered a study but did not want to circumvent the General Assembly, which rejected the idea in March.

The Democratic-led Senate voted to approve a study, but the Republican-controlled House defeated the measure after Del. Clarke N. Hogan (R-Charlotte), whose district draws some of its drinking water from the area, persuaded colleagues on the Rules Committee to oppose it.

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