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.
The issue divided legislators along geographic lines rather than partisan ones. Many who represent areas where uranium has been found or whose drinking water could be affected voted against it, and many from other regions, including Northern Virginia, voted for it. The Coles Hill area supplies drinking water locally and to parts of Hampton Roads and North Carolina.
Virginia Uranium paid almost $100,000 to 15 lobbyists at three firms to try to get a study approved, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. After legislators rejected the study, company officials began searching for a way around the defeat.
Hogan said he was not able to prevent the Coal and Energy Commission from approving the study. The 20-member commission, formed by the General Assembly in 1979, is composed of legislators appointed by the House and Senate and other residents appointed by the governor.
"I had no avenue to fight it," Hogan said. "What am I going to do?"
Hogan said he remains opposed to mining but that he is "cautiously optimistic" that the study will be fair.
Virginia Uranium donated almost $30,000 to 30 legislators this year, including some commission members, according to the public access project.
"This is a politically connected group,'' said Robert Lazaro of the Piedmont Environmental Council, which opposes the study. "When the 140 men and women of the General Assembly say no, people should pay attention to that."
Environmental groups and other critics say uranium should not be mined in Virginia's highly populated areas and relatively rainy climate. They say they are worried that radioactive materials could cause cancer or other illnesses and do long-term harm to animals and plants.
Uranium has never been mined on the East Coast, its mining in the United States confined instead to drier, less populated areas such as Utah, New Mexico, Wyoming and Nebraska, according to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Uranium mining is more common in Canada, Australia, Eastern Europe and Africa.
Virginia Uranium wants to mine and mill uranium on a 200-acre site to supply nuclear power plants. Coles said that can be done safely and in a way that would benefit the community through jobs, taxes and economic development.
Geologists think that smaller amounts of uranium can be found along the Piedmont from North Carolina to New York. Opponents are worried that if Virginia Uranium succeeds in lifting the state mining ban it would try to mine in other areas, but company officials say they are not interested.
The company has said it would fund the study, estimated to cost $1 million or more and take about a year.
But critics of the study -- and Kaine -- said they would have concerns about the objectivity of a company-funded study. As a result, Kilgore said he will ask all interested groups to contribute funding. No state money is expected to be spent.