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Editorial: More data needed on mining

Sunday, February 3, 2013

The battle over mining uranium in Pittsylvania County is not over. But it suffered a major setback last week that we hope will help lay the issue to rest, at least for now.

On Thursday, Sen. John Watkins, R-Midlothian, withdrew his legislation that would have established state regulations for uranium mining, a key step toward lifting the state’s 31-year ban on the practice. Watkins was unable to get enough votes for the bill to pass, so he pulled it off the table.

Instead, he asked Gov. Bob McDonnell to use his administrative powers to have state agencies draw up the rules. McDonnell has not taken a position on the divisive issue and his spokesman J. Tucker Martin said the governor was reviewing the request.

This puts the governor in a difficult position. On one hand, he has actively promoted job creation in Southside, and Virginia Uranium has said it would create 350 jobs over the 35-year life of the mine. McDonnell also has promoted Virginia as the energy capital of the East Coast, and the Coles Hill deposit in Pittsylvania County reportedly would provide enough uranium to power the country’s nuclear power plants for 21?2 years and foster energy independence.

On the other hand, despite numerous studies and reports, questions about the safety of the mining remain. Uranium mining has been done almost exclusively in the arid West, and critics said Virginia’s exposure to tropical storms and torrential rains made it a bad choice for the mining. They primarily are concerned about the milling — the separation of ore from rock — which creates vast amounts of waste that must be stored for generations. Opponents fear a breach of containment cells holding the waste would contaminate public drinking water supplies for localities as far away as Virginia Beach, nearly 200 miles from the proposed mine.

The proposal to mine uranium here has generated the largest, most diverse group of opponents we can remember on any single issue. Foes include environmentalists, business owners, NAACP and Farmer Bureau, parents, community leaders, physicians and legislators. The governor cannot ignore these voices.

No one knows the allure of potential jobs and economic development better than people here. But we do not believe most are willing to risk their health and safety as long as questions remain about mining. We urge the governor and state legislators to continue pressing for answers to those questions before they make a final decision on lifting the mining ban.


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