RICHMOND — The Senate sponsor of legislation to lift Virginia’s ban on uranium mining conceded Thursday that he could not persuade enough of his colleagues that mining can be done safely and economically in the state.
Sen. John Watkins, R-Powhatan County, withdrew his bill (Senate Bill 1353) on the same day that it was scheduled to be heard by the Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee. The chairman of a key House of Delegates committee said a uranium mining bill (House Bill 2330) will be shelved in that chamber because the measure likely would fail in the Senate.
“The emotion and fear that some have inspired on this subject have, for now at least, overcome the science and the engineering that we have worked so hard in Virginia to elevate in our educational systems and in our research facilities,” Watkins said in a statement explaining his decision to strike the bill.
“Indeed, the failure to lift this ban is a definite stigma and blot on our reputation as a pro-business, pro-energy, pro-property rights state,” Watkins added. “It says to the business community here and around the country that Virginia may not be as open for business as we claim it is.”
The demise of Watkins’ bill was a victory for opponents of a planned uranium mining operation in the Coles Hill community of Pittsylvania County, where Virginia Uranium Inc. has designs on tapping a 119-million-pound deposit worth an estimated $7 billion.
“This is a very unpopular bill, and we feel like there’s been a lack of sensitivity on some people’s part to understand the negative impact of mining of a radioactive material,” said Ben Davenport, a Chatham native and prominent Southside Virginia businessman who is part of a coalition against uranium mining.
But Virginia Uranium isn’t giving up the fight, said Patrick Wales, the company’s project manager.
“Virginia Uranium remains firmly committed to the safe development of the Coles Hill deposit,” Wales said. “The jobs, investment and economic prosperity our project offers are an unprecedented opportunity for our community, region and commonwealth.”
Watkins said he hopes Gov. Bob McDonnell will direct state agencies to develop regulations for uranium mining to address “unanswered questions” of skeptical legislators. The agencies cannot implement the regulations without approval from the General Assembly, Watkins said. But, he added, there is no reason the agencies can’t draft regulations “so we have those provisions before us when a future legislature votes on whether to lift the moratorium.”
McDonnell created an interagency work group that produced a report late last year outlining a proposed regulatory scheme for uranium mining and milling. But McDonnell has not taken a position on whether the mining moratorium should be lifted.
“He has been reviewing all the information produced regarding uranium mining in Virginia, and will continue to do so,” said McDonnell spokesman Tucker Martin.
– Michael Sluss