Virginia’s environmental lobby claims victory in battle over uranium mining —for now

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An employee with Virginia Uranium, which owns one of the world’s largest untapped uranium deposits, uses a Geiger counter to demonstrate the massive amount of radioactive material underground at a Southside Virginia site. Photo by Sean Cockerham via Newscom. An employee with Virginia Uranium, which owns one of the world’s largest untapped uranium deposits, uses a Geiger counter to demonstrate the massive amount of radioactive material underground at a Southside Virginia site. Photo by Sean Cockerham via Newscom.

A bill that would have lifted Virginia’s 31-year ban on uranium mining died in the State Senate last week, but local environmental advocates monitoring the issue in Richmond during this year’s fast-paced legislative session say the long-running debate is hardly over in the Commonwealth.

Dan Holmes, director of state policy for the Piedmont Environmental Council, which has a local office in Charlottesville, has been tracking the issue in the capital since last month. He said the early death of the bill was a small victory for environmentalists and others pushing to keep the ban in place, but “there’s still room for mischief” before the session wraps up.

The question of whether to end the moratorium was expected to be one of the hot topics of the 2013 session, which followed several large-scale studies exploring the risks of mining and years of big-budget lobbying efforts by Virginia Uranium, which holds title to the Pittsylvania County land containing one of the world’s largest deposits of the material used to fuel nuclear reactors.

But the bill that mining advocates had pinned most of their hopes on was killed by its sponsor, Senator John Watkins of Powhatan County, after it became clear last Thursday that the measure would never make it past the Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources—typically the first stop for legislation related to mining.

Holmes said big crowds attended a committee meeting to voice their support for keeping uranium mining out of Virginia, but didn’t get a chance to speak up before Watkins stopped his bill’s progress.

“Over 200 people were there,” said Holmes. “Even when they heard the bill was going be killed, they still showed up. It was a good day.”

There’s time for those who want to see Virginia capitalize on its massive uranium deposit to stage a comeback. “They could still slip something in the budget,” he said, though that window of opportunity is closing, and Holmes said he thinks legislators feel a back-door approach like that would be a black eye for the pro-mining camp.

But the debate won’t end with the closing of the session. Watkins has promised to keep pushing for an end to the moratorium, saying mining is vital to Virginia’s economy. “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,” he wrote in a statement released after the bill died, in which he also urged Governor Bob McDonnell to start drafting regulations ahead of a future vote on the moratorium.

Holmes said a return to the issue in the months and years to come feels inevitable, and that’s frustrating for those who have pushed back steadily. In their eyes, the science is in: It’s just too risky to dig up and mill the radioactive material in a relatively wet climate like Virginia’s, where flooding could compromise the safe storage of waste and potentially contaminate groundwater. “This is not a new issue,” he said. “It’s been studied for five years now.”

There’s one thing about the battle over the ban that he finds heartening, though. Unlike so many legislative fights, this one wasn’t purely partisan; plenty of Republicans who might be expected to fall into step with Watkins appeared willing to break rank and support the ban.

“It’s been a breath of fresh air,” Holmes said. “It’s always a pleasant experience when you see senators and delegates making decisions on information, and not on party lines.”

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