A New-York based energy firm that has leased more than 16,000 acres of Northern Virginia farmland in hope of finding uranium there has decided to surrender the leases after concluding there is little chance of finding significant deposits of the ore in the area.
A top executive of the Marline Uranium Corp. said today the firm's decision to abandon its Northern Virginia operations and shut its Culpeper office was not related to the fierce opposition Marline had encountered in the Washington suburbs. Officials there have raised fears that uranium mining might contaminate the region's drinking-water reservoirs.
Marline executive vice president Daniel C. Idzal said the company wanted to plow all its resources into the southern portion of the state where it has been welcomed by local officials and where it has announced discovery of a deposit of 30 million pounds of uranium ore.
The firm has said it hopes to launch a $200 million mining and milling operation in the Danville area, near the North Carolina border.
Today's surprise announcement came on the eve of a Fredericksburg meeting of citizen groups and local officials to plot its opposition to Marline's efforts. Some of those officials were skeptical of the company's statement, charging that Marline may have taken the step as part of a strategy to push legislation through the General Assembly lifting the state's moratorium on uranium mining.
"My skepticism reigns supreme," said John F. Herrity, chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.
"My feeling is the political heat in Northern Virginia has become rather intense and so they want to lay low for awhile so they can slip some regulations through the General Assembly in the dark of the night.
"My feeling is we ought not to let that happen," Herrity added.
Idzal said that today's decision was only made after the firm's extensive geologic data from both regional airborne and ground surveys showed that "it was very clear that the potential of significant mineral deposits in the area was nil.
"You have to understand that for somebody in the exploration business to abandon an operation like this is like losing their right hand," he said. "It's not an easy decision to pack your bags and walk away."
Since it moved into the state in the late 1970s, Marline has invested more than $25 million in exploration, leases and consultants in hopes of turning Virginia into the first uranium producing state east of the Mississippi River. But the overwhelming bulk of that investment -- about 95 percent -- has been centered on Pittsylvania County, where local officials have welcomed the company as a potential economic boon.
Idzal estimated today that the firm has spent only about $500,000 in Northern Virgnia, where it has leased about 16,000 acres from about 40 landholders in Culpeper, Madison, Fauquier and Orange counties. "It was a drop in the bucket," he said.
Idzal said the company will exercise its cancellation rights on the leases as soon as possible and the landholders will lose their royalty payments, which range up to $10 per acre annually. He also said it was highly unlikely that any other uranium firm would seek to buy up the leases.
"I find it difficult if not impossible to believe that anyone could come in and arrive at a different decision than we have," he said. "There's nothing to sell."
It was unclear today what impact, if any, today's announcement will have on the upcoming legislative battle between Marline and its opponents. For the past year, a special state uranium panel has been studying the question of whether to propose an extension of the state's ban on uranium mining permits, due to expire July 1.
Marline has hired some of the state's premier lobbyists -- including former House Appropriations Committee chairman Edward E. Lane, former congressman Thomas Downing, and William Royall, former press secretary to Gov. John N. Dalton -- as part of an all-out effort to pass legislation lifting the morotorium.
State Sen. Daniel Bird (D-Wytheville), chairman of the uranium study subcommittee, last month said it was doubtful the panel would finish its work in time to recommend mining permit legislation for January's legislative session. Bird said today that he did not think today's announcement would have "any great significant impact" on the panel's work one way or another. "We want to take a cautious approach," he said.
Marline has been continuing its efforts to persuade local officials that uranium mining holds no great environmental dangers for the state. In a meeting with Fairfax supervisors last month, for example, Herrity said that Marline officials stated that uranium mill tailings -- or waste products -- were so safe they could be dumped in the Occoquan River without any side effects.
Herrity and local environmental groups said that, despite the Marline announcement, they still planned to meet in Fredericksburg Wednesday and continue their efforts against the company. Idzal, who categorized the opponents as a "small but vocal group," said he was not impressed.
"There have been dozens of meetings in the past and there will be dozens of meetings in the future," he said. "I can't see how one meeting is any different from any other."