Supporters of uranium mining appear to have an uphill fight persuading a key Senate committee to support legislation that would lift Virginia’s 31 year-old moratorium on uranium mining and establish a regulatory program for the industry.
At least eight of the 15 members of the Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee oppose lifting the moratorium or are leaning in that direction, according to interviews The Roanoke Times conducted on Friday and Monday. Four members said they are undecided and one declined to say how he will vote when the committee hears the bill. The panel’s next scheduled meeting is Thursday.
Only two members of the committee – including the bill’s sponsor, Sen. John Watkins, R-Powhatan County – have publicly declared support for lifting the ban.
The Senate committee hearing will be the first major legislative test for supporters of a proposed uranium mining and milling operation in Pittsylvania County. Virginia Uranium Inc. hopes to tap one of the world’s largest known uranium deposits in the Coles Hill community near Chatham. The uranium mining debate is one of the most contentious and closely-watched issues of this General Assembly session.
Supporters of legislation (Senate Bill 1353) to lift the moratorium argue that the proposed mining operation would have significant economic benefits for a region of the state that has struggled with high unemployment rates. Opponents have argued that a uranium mining and milling operation would pose risks to the environment and public health and create a stigma that would hurt economic development efforts in the region. Concerns about potential contamination of Lake Gaston has fueled opposition in Hampton Roads, which relies on the lake for much of its drinking water supply.
The Senate committee’s chairman, Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta County, said he is leaning against lifting the moratorium, largely because of opposition of legislators who represent the region. Two outspoken opponents of lifting the moratorium – Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, and Sen. Frank Ruff, R-Mecklenburg County, sit on the committee. The Pittsylvania County Board of Supervisors also has passed a resolution opposing uranium mining.
“I think the committee will weigh heavily toward the views of Southside,” Hanger said on Friday.
“No matter what the outcome is, I would like to engage the committee in a more in-depth analysis,” Hanger said.
A bill to lift the moratorium also has been introduced in the House of Delegates. But the House Commerce and Labor Committee, which has the bill, may wait to see how the Senate legislation fares before moving forward with the bill.
Environmental groups opposed to uranium mining rallied on Capitol Square Monday and lobbied legislators on the issue. Sen. Harry Blevins, R-Chesapeake, a member of the Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, said he has heard “real strong voices on both sides,” but wants to hear more before making up his mind.
“I don’t like to make a decision on something until I’ve heard from both sides,” Blevins said.
Democratic committee members Adam Ebbin of Alexandria, David Marsden of Fairfax County, Donald McEachin of Henrico County, Ralph Northam of Norfolk and Chap Petersen of Farifax County said they oppose lifting the moratorium. Democrat John Miller of Newport News said he remains undecided. Democrat Phillip Puckett of Russell County said he has made up his mind, but declined to say how he would vote.
Three Republican committee members –Blevins, Mark Obenshain of Harrisonburg and Richard Stuart of Westmoreland County – said they remain undecided. Watkins and Sen. Dick Black, R-Loudoun County, support lifting the ban.
“I’m sensitive to the concerns people have,” Black said Monday.
But, he added, “If this country doesn’t start producing real things, I think the country is going to continue to have economic problems. I think energy is the key to restoring economic vitality.”
Uranium mining opponents may have gained an advantage when Senate Clerk Susan Clarke Schaar sent to bill to the Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, which typically handles bills dealing with mining regulations. Watkins had intended to have the bill vetted by the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee, a mostly pro-business panel that he chairs.
Watkins’ bill would effectively limit uranium mining in Virginia to the Coles Hill project. The legislation would require the State Corporation Commission to issue a license before the company applies for permits from other state agencies. It also would require Virginia Uranium to store the waste product — called tailings – in below-grade containment facilities, which the company already plans to do.
Stanley said last week that he will fight any effort to have the bill sent to the Commerce and Labor Committee.
“It’s a mining bill,” said Stanley, crisply explaining why he believes the bill belongs in the Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee.
– Michael Sluss