AP News

Va. uranium panel meets in Richmond for last time


RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — A multi-agency state panel studying the possibility of uranium mining in Virginia conducts its final public meeting Tuesday before submitting its report to legislators in December.

The Uranium Working Group meeting is scheduled to review statutory and regulatory changes that would be required if a 30-year ban on uranium mining is ended so a mining company can tap a 119-milllion-pound deposit of the radioactive ore in Southside Virginia. The Richmond meeting is also expected to examine emergency preparedness and response plans, should mining be allowed.

Maureen Matsen, Gov. Bob McDonnell's top energy adviser and spokeswoman for the working group, said she expects a report to be issued to the General Assembly's Coal and Energy Commission in mid-December. It will not include a recommendation on whether the ban should be lifted.

Sen. John Watkins, a Powhatan Republican who is vice chairman of the commission and its uranium subcommittee, said that decision will be left to the commission. "The Coal and Energy Commission will make a recommendation as to whether the ban should be lifted, whether we should leave it, or make no recommendation at all," he said.

If it goes to the full General Assembly, it will likely spark a major environmental debate in 2013.

Should the issue end up in the full legislature, Watkins said, "It's going to be a close vote."

Virginia Uranium Inc. is lobbying to have the ban lifted so it can mine the largest known deposit of the radioactive ore in the U.S. and one of the largest in the world. It estimates its value at $7 billion.

The company contends the mining and milling — or processing the ore for fuel in nuclear power plants — can be conducted safely. It has said it could create hundreds of jobs in a part of the state sorely in need of a new economic base and generate state and local taxes topping $100 million.

Critics argue that full-blown uranium mining has never occurred east of the Mississippi and that Virginia's wet, storm-prone climate would be a threat to huge containment units that would store radioactive-laced rock for generations.

The company has pledged to store waste, called tailings, in below-ground cells, which it says minimize the risk of a release of radioactive waste.

Scores of groups and localities have taken a stand against ending the ban, and Norfolk and Virginia beach have hiring lobbyists to take on pro-uranium interests in the legislature. The cities, which draw water from Southside Virginia, are spending as much as $89,000 on the effort, the Virginian-Pilot reports. The Virginia Association of Counties and the Virginia Municipal League have endorsed legislative positions seeking to keep the ban.

Watkins said he supports ending the ban, and he cites a constitutional amendment passed on Election Day Nov. 6 as one reason for his position. The constitutional amendment widely endorsed by voters limits government's powers of eminent domain.

"To me it's a property rights issue," Watkins said. "We just had an amendment to the Constitution of Virginia dealing with the fundamental right of property ownership. That ban reflects a denial of property rights on one particular element."

A report by the National Academy of Sciences concluded Virginia faced "steep hurdles" to ensure that uranium mining could be conducted safely. In the wake of that report one year ago, McDonnell asked the General Assembly to delay any action on the ban in 2012 so his working group could take a deeper look at that study, as well as other studies, and examine a wide-ranging list of other issues.

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Steve Szkotak can be reached on Twitter at https://twitter.com/sszkotakap


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