A special Virginia panel has taken a first step toward lifting a recently imposed moratorium that prohibits a New York-based energy corporation from mining uranium in the state.
The action -- taken here by a subcommittee of the Virginia Coal and Energy Commission -- sets the stage for what is likely to be a confrontation between environmentalists and industry when the General Assembly convenes next year. Overriding the protests of environmental and citizen groups, panel members voted 7 to 1 yesterday to direct its staff to draft legislation that would open up Virginia to full-scale mining and milling operations after July 1, 1983.
"We believe this is one of the most serious environmental and health issues that Virginia has ever had to face as a state," said Sandra Speiden, an Orange County milk farmer and board member of the Piedmont Environmental Council. "Yet if they go ahead and write legislation, where does that leave the question of whether its safe or not? They're putting the cart before the horse."
Although panel members insisted there is plenty of time to debate the safety issues, their action was nonetheless a victory for the Marline Uranium Corp., which has leased more than 55,000 acres and drilled hundreds of exploratory holes in hopes of turning Virginia into the first uranium- producing state east of the Mississippi River.
Since it first began leasing five years ago, Marline officials said the firm has spent nearly $15 million in the state, opened up three offices and hired lawyers, lobbyists, and public relations consultants to press its case.
In addition, recent disclosure reports show the firm spent $58,548 on lobbying during this year's legislative session -- more than any other firm.
The bulk of Marline's leases have been in southern Pittsylvania County near Danville, although the firm has also leased about 15,000 acres in central Virginia counties, such as Fauquier and Culpeper, sparking fears of uranium contamination as far north as Fairfax.
During this year's legislature, Marline and its foes reached a compromise that restricted exploration to the drilling of holes and imposed a moratorium on mining permits until mid-1983. The delay was supposed to give the Coal and Energy Commission's uranium subcommittee time to study such issues as the potential threats to underground water supplies, the storage of radioactive mill tailings, and the health impact on miners.
Environmentalists said those questions have yet to be resolved, particularly in view of the fact that mining conditions in Virginia would differ from those in the western states where uranium mining has been conducted. Company officials insist that the dangers are being greatly exaggerated.
State Sen. Daniel W. Bird (D-Wytheville), the uranium subcommittee chairman, predicted that his panel later will recommend that the state approve mining in the southern part of the state, while continuing the moratorium in central Virginia, where protests have been strongest. "We don't want to cram this down the throats of the people of Culpeper, Orange and Occoquan," Bird said.
Such action may not be enough to satisfy many officials, including Fairfax Board Chairman John F. Herrity, who has raised fears of uranium mill tailings seeping into the Occoquan Reservoir, the major source of the county's drinking water.
"What they're going to do is establish their base in Pittsylvania and then move north," Herrity said. "That's their strategy . . . This is a two-stage rocket."