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Mining plan clears hurdle
Commission backs proposal on regulations for Coles Hill mining
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Del. Don Merricks, R-Pittsylvania, gestures during a meeting of the Virginia Commission on Coal and Energy at the Capitol on Monday in Richmond. The committee approved a proposal to draft legislation to allow uranium mining regulations to be be written. (AP )

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

From Bulletin and AP reports

The Virginia Coal and Energy Commission voted 11-2 Monday in support of legislation recommending the development of regulations for uranium mining in Pittsylvania County.

The bill, proposed by Sen. John Watkins, R-Midlothian, would limit mining to be done only by Virginia Uranium Inc. and a 119-million-pound deposit in the Coles Hill area of the county.

Limiting the scope of the proposal to Coles Hill may make it easier for legislators in areas not affected by proposed mining to support the commission’s recommendation, Del. Don Merricks said.

“I think it’s a political move to take a lot of legislators off the hook because it wouldn’t affect their” constituents, said Merricks, R-Pittsylvania County.

Merricks, who is a member of the commission and one of two members to vote against the proposal, said that before the vote was taken, he asked if the bill by Watkins, vice chair of the commission, would be statewide “or just for Coles Hill.” Watkins replied the proposal was limited to Coles Hill.

Virginia Uranium welcomed the commission’s recommendation and deemed it an important step by a panel that has grappled with the issue for years.

“I think it’s significant, a very positive sign,” said Patrick Wales, project manager for the mining company. “It’s not just any commission. It is the commission that has presided over this for the past five years.”

The General Assembly is expected to take up uranium mining in its 2013 session that convenes Wednesday.

“It’s going to be close,” said Watkins, a Republican from Powhatan and a commission member. “This is a big deal.”

Opponents argue that Virginia’s wet, hurricane-prone environment is a bad place to mine uranium. Virginia Uranium says mining and milling can be done safely using best industry practices. It has said it will store the waste in below-ground containment units.

Some view the legislation approved Monday as the groundwork to end the decades old ban on uranium mining in the state.

Merricks has his own opinion.

“I think that is a back door approach. Here we are voting on a concept” rather than an actual bill, which is the general procedure, he said. “I thought that was a little bit backwards, but at the same time, we sometimes approve a bill for specific planning district, but that’s usually a project that majority of people want.”

“Clearly this is an attempt to win the votes of northern Virginia delegates, to say it’s not going to be in your backyard, (so) don’t worry,” said Mike Pucci, a uranium mining opponent from North Carolina. “The toxicity is going to be limited to southern Virginia and all of North Carolina.”

When the bill is crafted for legislators to consider, “I think the wording will say only areas approved for exploratory drilling, and I think only one that is approved” is the Coles Hill property, Merricks said.

Before another vote is taken though, the bill must introduced and referred to a committee, Merricks said.

“That’s when the debate will begin,” he said.

After Monday’s vote was announced, some members of the audience expressed their dismay. “We will never forget what you’ve done,” a woman said from the audience that included many people wearing neon green T-shirts reading “Keep the Ban.”

Watkins based his legislation on the work of the multi-agency Uranium Working Group created by Gov. Bob McDonnell, who has said he has not formed a position on uranium mining. The group submitted its report to McDonnell in late November but did not recommend whether the decades-old ban should be lifted.


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