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Uranium group is at issue
Thursday, April 5, 2012
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS -
RICHMOND — McDonnell administration officials assured critics Wednesday that a study of uranium mining’s impact in Virginia will be conducted openly, but several who attended the meeting were not convinced.
Members of the multi-agency Uranium Working Group hastily called the meeting amid mounting criticism that too much of their work is being conducted privately, with scant opportunity to follow their progress.
Maureen Matsen, the governor’s senior energy adviser, and Gov. Bob McDonnell’s chief of staff, Martin Kent, each told environmentalists, municipal representatives and others they want to hear suggestions from those gathered at the meeting and that the public is also urged to relay concerns to the group and at public meetings and on its website.
“We think it is a very transparent, open and public process,” Matsen told the group.
After the one-hour meeting, some said they were not confident their concerns would be heeded.
“It was a very abbreviated meeting,” said Dan Holmes, director of state policy for the Piedmont Environmental Council, which opposes uranium mining. “I think that maybe 3 percent of the issues got thrown on the table.”
The uranium study group was created in January after McDonnell urged the General Assembly to not consider lifting a 30-year ban on uranium mining during the 2012 session. The Legislature had been expected to take up the ban after an intense lobbying effort by Virginia Uranium Inc.
The company wants to mine a uranium deposit in Pittsylvania County that it estimates at 119-million pounds. It is the largest known deposit in the U.S. and among the largest in the world.
The company has estimated its value at $10 billion and has said it would create jobs and economic advantages for Southside Virginia, an area with high unemployment. It also maintains the radioactive ore can be mined and processed safely.
Opponents, however, warn that mining would be an environmental gamble and they fear radioactive tailings — the waste from separating ore from rock — could be scattered into public drinking supplies during a catastrophic storm.
Uranium has mostly been mined in the arid West and has never been extracted on the East Coast except as a byproduct of other mining.
A National Academy of Sciences study completed in December concluded Virginia would have to overcome steep hurdles before allowing uranium mining.
Many who attended the meeting oppose uranium mining and say their minds won’t be changed by the committee.
Andrew Lester, executive director of the Roanoke River Basin, is one of those skeptics. He said the issue has been studied enough and none has concluded with absolute certainty mining can be done safely.
“It really shouldn’t be pursued at all,” Lester said of the state study group. He said Virginia Uranium should bear the burden of proof mining can be done without threatening the environment.
“We have no proof at this point that uranium mining can be done in a region like this without major problems,” he said.
Lester suggested during the meeting that North Carolina should have a say in the Virginia debate because it is downstream from the proposed mine in Chatham, near the North Carolina state line.
“They should be involved in this in some way because all of the water that comes out of that system goes right to North Carolina,” he said.
Robert G. Burnley, a former director of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality who now is affiliated with the Southern Environmental Law Center, suggested that the panel include some of those in attendance on the study group.
“Didn’t seem to get any response, did it?” he said after the meeting.
He said he supports McDonnell’s effort to learn more about uranium mining. “The more we learn, the more clear is the folly of trying to do this in Virginia,” he said.
Holmes, whose group also opposes uranium mining, said the lack of transparency is most apparent when it comes to seeking correspondence between agencies working on the rules. Those communications are protected from public view because they are considered the governor’s working papers.
“That’s a big issue for me and an organization that relishes those types of emails to really get at the heart of the matter,” he said.
Not everyone left unhappy.
Robert Matthias, assistant to the city manager in Virginia Beach, said he thought the meeting was a good first step. “I take the governor and Maureen at their word that they’re trying to have as open a process as possible,” he said.
The city, Virginia’s largest, has passed a resolution opposing uranium mining unless it can be shown it poses no risk to the tourist city’s water supply, which originates near the proposed uranium mine.
Administration officials declined to comment after the meeting except for a quick statement from Matsen. “I thought it went very well,” she said.
The group will report its findings late this year to McDonnell.