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Earlier story: Mining foes say battle not over
Uranium bill pulled in committee; similar House measure still alive
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State Sen. John Watkins, R-Powhatan (center), listens to chairman Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta (left), as Sen. Frank Ruff, R-Mecklenburg (right), listens during a meeting of the Senate Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources Committee Thursday in Richmond. (AP)

Friday, February 1, 2013

Uranium mining is off the table in the state Senate, but some opponents of lifting the ban say the battle is not over.

Sen. John Watkins, R-Midlothian, on Thursday abruptly withdrew legislation he sponsored to establish state regulations for proposed uranium mining in Pittsylvania County after he was unable to accrue enough votes for it.

Mining opponents, many of whom traveled to Richmond for a hearing on the legislation, cheered when Watkins pulled the bill.

“This is a resounding — a resounding — victory,” said Cale Jaffe of the Southern Environmental Law Center.

Jaffe credited broad opposition to the proposal, which was pitched by the mining company as a job creator in a hard-hit section of the state.

“This is not just environmentalists,” he said. “This is small business owners in Southside, it’s farmers, it’s parents of small children, it’s community leaders, it’s physicians — all these disparate voices coming together.”

A bill similar to Watkins’ remains alive in the House.

However, Del. Don Merricks, who also opposes lifting the ban, said it is all but certain that the House will abandon its bill.

Merricks, R-Pittsylvania County, serves on the House’s Commerce and Labor Committee, where that bill is now. He said the committee was “waiting to see what the Senate would do.”

Now that the effort to lift the moratorium has failed in the Senate, “it’s not going to be heard in the House,” he said.

For that reason, “I’m cautiously optimistic” that efforts to lift the ban will fail, said Naomi Hodge-Muse, president of the Martinsville-Henry County NAACP. The state chapter of the organization has voiced opposition to lifting the ban.

Hodge-Muse was among those who went to Richmond to show lawmakers they are opposed to lifting the moratorium enacted in the early 1980s. She said she had seen no indication that the House would drop its legislation.

Even if the effort to lift the state ban on uranium mining is unsuccessful this year, “that doesn’t mean it won’t come up again” in future General Assembly sessions, said Martinsvile Mayor Kim Adkins.

Merricks agreed. He likened this year’s apparent defeat of lifting the ban to “the bottom of the ninth (inning) of the first game of the World Series.”

Whether an effort to repeal the ban comes before lawmakers again in the future is “the million-dollar question,” he said.

Virginia Uranium Inc. wants the ban repealed so it can mine and mill uranium at the Coles Hill site near Chatham in Pittsylvania County. That site is thought to be one of the world’s largest deposits of uranium, a radioactive metal used to make nuclear power and weapons.

The company maintains its proposed mine would operate safely — which opponents question — and create hundreds of jobs in a region hit hard by layoffs in the textile and manufacturing industries in recent years.

In a release, Virginia Uranium said it will continue to try and educate people about “the strict regulations, science and technology” involved in mining.

Martinsville City Council voiced its opposition to lifting the ban in its 2013 legislative agenda, which it adopted in November.

Despite jobs that the Coles Hill mine would create, the council believes “it’s not in our region’s best interest” to have the mine due to uncertainty about whether it would be safe, Adkins said.

She said she understands other local lawmakers are opposed to lifting the ban and they must be persuaded to remain opposed.

Del. Danny Marshall of Danville, as well as Del. Charles Poindexter and state Sen. Bill Stanley, both of Glade Hill, could not be reached Thursday. All three lawmakers are Republicans. Marshall and Stanley have said they oppose uranium mining in Pittsylvania; Poindexter has said he was waiting for more information before reaching a decision.

Three members of the Henry County Board of Supervisors — H.G. Vaughn, Tommy Slaughter and Joe Bryant — have said they oppose uranium mining, but the board itself never has taken a stand.

Supervisors Chairman Jim Adams said the board generally backs positions of the Virginia Association of Counties, which declared its opposition to uranium mining as part of its legislative package.

Asked his reaction to Watkins pulling the Senate bill, Adams, the Blackberry District supervisor, said “the county has faith in the legislative process.”

Watkins said in a release that he withdrew the bill because lawmakers were “not ready to vote up or down on lifting” the ban on uranium mining.

“They want to see the process continue to move forward,” he said, “but they have heard from opponents that there are still ‘too many unanswered questions’ (about whether mining is safe) to act now.”

Merricks’ translation: “The votes were not there to pass it, and he (Watkins) realized that.”

Watkins called for Gov. Bob McDonnell to direct state agencies to continue drafting mining regulations that include appropriate safety measures, as well as let the public participate in the process. McDonnell’s spokesman, J. Tucker Martin, said the governor was reviewing the request.

Virginia Uranium immediately embraced Watkins’ request to the governor and a spokesman said the approach would be thorough and transparent.

“Some policymakers have suggested that unanswered questions remain,” said spokesman Patrick Wales. “Sen. Watkins’ suggested course of action would ensure that they have the benefit of all possible information on this issue before casting a vote on lifting the moratorium.”

The General Assembly would still have to vote to accept the regulations, probably in 2014.

Watkins, who represents the Richmond area, voiced frustration with opponents. He said “the emotion and fear that some have inspired” contrast with science, engineering and research.

“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 said. “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.”

“This is an issue that a lot of people have put a lot of time on over the last several years, and it is not going to go away,” Watkins added.


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