A company seeking to mine what is thought to be the largest uranium deposit in the United States flew several Virginia state legislators to France last month as part of a lobbying campaign to get the state to overturn its ban on mining the radioactive material.
Under Virginia’s very permissive laws, this was perfectly legal.
However, the trip has understandably raised eyebrows and ire among constituents, environmental activists and editorial boards who perceive it as Virginia Uranium’s effort to buy our votes. To make matters worse, a senior Democrat from Northern Virginia, who knew full well the itinerary and was already en route, opted out of the trip only after the news media reported his scheduled participation, feeding the notion that we were up to no good.
So why would somebody like me, who has spent the past three terms in the House of Delegates building a record and reputation as a good-government progressive and environmental activist, agree to participate in such an excursion?
As a committed environmentalist, I believe there is great value in seeing mining sites and operations and their aftermath firsthand, and in hearing the other side’s best and strongest case that uranium can be extracted safely from the site in south-central Pittsylvania Countywithout contaminating the land, air and drinking water nearby.
If proponents are able to say they have seen uranium mining work safely firsthand, and all I can do is cite what I have read or been told, I am at a huge disadvantage. Therefore, my alternatives were to pass on the trip and miss the opportunity to be as credible and informed as the other side, or accept Virginia Uranium’s offer to pay my way and hope my record as a five-time League of Conservation Voters “Legislative Hero” has earned me the benefit of the doubt from my constituents.
Virginia Uranium took us to France because the mine sites there are most comparable to the south-central Virginia site, where an estimated 119 million pounds of uranium lie under 200 acres of farmland. Unearthed, and worth an estimated $10 billion, the uranium could fuel the nation’s nuclear power plants for two years.
Uranium mines elsewhere are primarily in arid geographies. The sites in France and Virginia are in fertile, moist areas, surrounded by agriculture and close to rivers that supply drinking water to major communities. Uranium deposits elsewhere are in sandy soil and loose rock, while deposits in France and Virginia are ensconced in granite.
Some critics have called the trip a boondoggle because we visited mines that are no longer active. However, a central question is how mining will affect the environment and public health in the long term, after extraction of the radioactive material has ceased.
The sites we visited are in the final stages of reclamation; the detritus of decades of mining is being secured, sequestered and monitored, and the landscape is being molded into its long-term state. Virginia Uranium argues that if we want to know how Coles Hill, Va., would appear after 50 years of mining, we need only look to Bessines, France — so that’s where we went.
Despite what The Washington Post has reported, the three days in France were not a vacation. We did have one day and part of an afternoon to ourselves in Paris, but otherwise we were in briefings, meetings and site visits. In addition to touring mine sites in and around Bessines, we met with the local mayor and town manager and spoke with an area farmer. We asked them how mining affected the environment, public health and agriculture as well as air and water quality and safety in the region.
I brought a list of tough questions, including questions about environmental impact and public health provided by the Keep the Ban coalition, which is working against uranium mining in Virginia.
Some of the information we received in France conflicts with scientific studies on long-term toxicity previously cited by environmentalists, and I have asked both sides to respond to each other’s assertions as I work to sort out fact from fiction.
Liberal Democrats — myself included — routinely condemn Republicans for deciding issues based on ideology and not science, and for being unwilling to hear opposing points of view. With full knowledge that I am among its greatest skeptics, Virginia Uranium invited me on this trip because the company truly believes the facts are on its side.
In addition to visiting the proposed mine site in Virginia, I am hoping to travel to another site in Canada to see a uranium mining and milling operation that is still active (though in a different climate and topography than the proposed Virginia site). Prior to the trip to France, I participated in briefings with environmental groups working against uranium mining, and my work with them will continue, now with the benefit of more knowledge.
I trust my constituents to know that protecting our environment has always been — and remains — among my top priorities. I also trust that my record of taking on polluters, tobacco companies and other entrenched corporate interests demonstrates that my vote is not for sale.
The trip to France was an opportunity to hear Virginia Uranium’s best and strongest case. It was but one part of my work to be well informed on this issue, and it will better equip me to work with environmental advocates to protect the public interest. I’m not sorry I went.
Del. David Englin (Alexandria) is the vice chairman of the Virginia House Democratic Caucus.