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Uranium group is criticized
As panel meets in Chatham
Tuesday, June 19, 2012
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS -
CHATHAM — A multi-agency panel studying whether uranium can be safely mined in Virginia went to the epicenter of the environmental battle Monday and was met by a torrent of criticism.
Residents and environmentalists opposed to mining questioned the very existence of the Uranium Working Group, stating the $500,000 it had spent on consultants could have been better used.
“My question for you,” asked Halifax County resident Jesse Andrews, “is how many qualified history teachers could be hired for $500,000? Why is uranium mining more important than the proper education of our children?”
Members of the working group looked on impassively, and occasionally with some bemusement, as speaker after speaker criticized how the panel was going about its business and told them uranium mining would be a bad thing for Southside Virginia. The working group held the meeting in Chatham in Pittsylvania County, home to a 119-million-pound deposit of the radioactive ore.
Gov. Bob McDonnell created the Uranium Working Group in January after he asked the General Assembly to delay any decision on ending a 30-year ban on mining the metal. The governor asked a group of state mining, environmental and health officials to more closely examine the consequences of mining and develop the regulatory framework and safeguards that would be needed if mining occurred.
“The goal is to provide information to decision-makers,” Maureen Matsen, McDonnell’s energy adviser and spokeswoman for the group, said in an interview before the meeting. “There are an awful lot of questions that haven’t been answered.”
The meeting in Chatham High School included presentations from the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy; a state geologist; and a consultant hired by the working group.
Cathie France of the State Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy explained that the group intended to address questions raised by a raft of studies. She said that would include a study by the National Academy of Sciences, which concluded Virginia faced steep hurdles before uranium mining could be conducted safely.
“We do not take position one way or the other whether the ban should be lifted,” France said.
The examination is being driven by a proposal by Virginia Uranium Inc. to tap one of the largest known uranium deposits in the world, the so-called Coles Hill site in Chatham. The company has said it can safely mine and process the ore while creating hundreds of jobs and new economic opportunities in a region of the state sorely in need of both.
A coalition of environmental groups maintains the wet East Coast is a risky climate to mine uranium, most of which has been produced in mines in the arid southwest. They fear radioactive tailings — waste rock and ore from the processing of uranium — could be released into public drinking supplies during a hurricane packing torrential rains.
The audience nearly filled an auditorium with a seating capacity of 500. Of approximately 35 speakers, the great majority opposed mining.
Speakers scoffed at the openness of the working group, questioned the industry ties of the consultant group it hired, and generally opposed mining as a risk not worth taking.
An engineer and mining opponent, Jack Dunavant, asked the panel: “Why are we here?” He contended that no amount of oversight and regulation could ensure that uranium would not foul water supplies and farm fields.
“You cannot keep it out of the water. You can’t keep it out of the air,” Dunavant said.
He suggested the committee go back to Richmond and work on something else “other than trying to shove this down our throats.”
Uranium mining has been the focus of a half-dozen studies in recent years, including assessments of its economic impact. The National Academy of Sciences delivered a thick statewide analysis of uranium mining to the legislature in December. While that panel did not take a position on whether mining should be allowed, it stated that Virginia would face steep hurdles to ensure the safety of workers and residents if uranium mining was allowed.
Mining critics contend the NAS study should have been the final word on mining, and they question the need for the state study.
The uranium deposit is located within 30 miles of the North Carolina state line, and opposition has begun to organize in that state.
“The NC Coalition Against Uranium Mining encourages the governor of Virginia, the elected officials in the legislature and the uranium mining working group to do the right thing for all concerned citizens in Virginia and North Carolina and keep the ban on uranium mining in place,” the group said in a statement issued before the meeting.