RICHMOND — Gov. Robert F. McDonnell opposes lifting the state ban on uranium mining this year, but he wants officials to further consider the impact of excavating a site in Southside Virginia that contains the nation’s largest known uranium deposit.
McDonnell (R), who has often talked about making Virginia the “energy capital of the East Coast,’’ said Thursday that he would create a multi-agency group to study the site and draft regulations for a possible new mining industry in Virginia.
“Mining is an inherently dangerous activity. Uranium is an inherently dangerous mineral,’’ McDonnell told reporters. “So before we go forth . . . it seemed to me the prudent course of action was to keep the moratorium in place and then see whether or not we can develope a regulatory construct.’’
State legislators, who are split on uranium mining, have largely deferred to McDonnell on what was expected to be one of the most contentious issues in this year’s 60-day General Assembly session. In essence, McDonnell neutralized the moratorium issue for the year even if legislators introduce mining bills.
The state Coal and Energy Commission’s uranium subcommittee recommended to McDonnell this week that the state continue to study the issue.
Virginia Uranium, the company seeking to mine the site in Southside, had lobbied aggressively to lift the ban this year, speaking to more than 100 legislators and flying more than a dozen of them to France and Canada to visit uranium mines. The company donated more than $150,000 to political campaigns in Virginia and retained five of Richmond’s most influential lobbying and public relations firms, according to the Virginia Public Access Project, a nonpartisan tracker of money in politics.
But company executives welcomed McDonnell’s position Thursday.
“The governor’s decision is an important step toward establishing a regulatory framework that will enable our company to build and operate the safest uranium mine in the world right here in Virginia,’’ said Patrick Wales, the company’s project manager.
Uranium was found three decades ago in Coles Hill, near Chatham, a small town in Pittsylvania County. The deposit, located under farmland, begin nears the surface and runs about 1,500 feet deep.
Virginia Uranium said tests indicate that there is about 119 million pounds of uranium — worth as much as $10 billion — below the surface. It is the world’s seventh-largest known deposit — enough to supply all U.S. nuclear power plants for about two years or satisfy Virginia’s demands for 75 years.
Last month, a long-awaited study by the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering said “steep hurdles” had to be surmounted before Virginia lifted its threedecade ban on uranium mining.
But the 302-page report does not address the particular 200-acre site and whether it is suitable for mining. Critics say the study is tainted because Virginia Uranium picked up the cost: $1.42 million.
Environmental groups — worried that a uranium mine in Virginia’s relatively rainy climate could contaminate natural resources, cause illness, and have long-term effects on plants and animals — are disappointed that McDonnell wants to begin preparing regulations.
“It is a waste of time and money to start drafting regulations at this time,’’ said Chris Miller, president of the Piedmont Environmental Council. “The National Academy of Sciences report affirmed just how risky uranium mining in Virginia could be and called on the commonwealth not to move forward without substantial public input and without extensive scientific and technical briefings. Drafting regulations now would be putting the cart before the horse.’’
Company officials say that additional safeguards have been put in place since mining at Coles Hill was first considered and that the federal government regulates uranium mines and mills with regard to safety and homeland security.
Uranium would be mined underground.
The result, a sandy substance called “yellow cake” uranium, would be packed into drums and shipped. The remaining crushed rock would be kept on-site, underground or in a pit.
Staff writer Laura Vozzella contributed to this report.