(The last paragraph of this post has been updated to correct an error in the original posting)
On November 8, 2011, Virginia’s General Assembly elections resulted in Republican control of the State Senate and an expanded Republican majority in the House of Delegates. In the wake of these elections, focus has shifted to the upcoming 2012 General Assembly (GA) session, which will begin on Wednesday, January 11, 2012. Though the state budget will no doubt preoccupy coverage of the 60-day session’s rapid-fire proceedings, environmental concern will focus on the latest stage in the fight over uranium mining in Virginia.
Uranium Mining Proposals in Virginia
It started over 30 years ago, when significant uranium deposits were discovered in the Piedmont region of Virginia, east of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Shortly, thereafter, leases were secured throughout the area, including at a site called “Cole’s Hill” in Pittsylvania County. At the time, regulations for uranium mining were nonexistent. According to Keep the Ban, a coalition of groups opposed to uranium mining in Virginia, the GA enacted a moratorium on mining in 1982 “while a state commission studied the potential impacts of uranium production. When global uranium prices began to fall, the mining proposal was dropped.”
Fast-forward to 2008 when Virginia Uranium, Inc. (VUI), in light of a dramatic spike in uranium prices, came to the GA to seek an overturn of the mining ban. In the United States, uranium mining has traditionally taken place in the dry western states, including current sites in six states. Over time, uranium mining has resulted in 15,000 abandoned mine sites in 14 western states that must be cleaned up pursuant to the Uranium Mill Tailings Radiation Control Act of 1978 (UMTRCA). Through all this, uranium operations have never been undertaken in a wet climate like Virginia’s. In fact, the “Cole’s Hill” site, targeted by VUI for mining, raises concern precisely because of its location upstream from and potential to adversely affect Lake Gaston — Virginia Beach’s water supply source. Furthermore, other uranium deposits throughout Virginia lie upstream of significant water resources.
Study to Be Released Next Month
VUI was unsuccessful in their effort to lift the moratorium in 2008, as the House Rules Committee tabled Senate Bill 525. Subsequently, however, VUI was able to convince the Virginia Coal and Energy Commission to approve a two-step study by the National Research Council (NRC) of the National Academy of Sciences of the technical and socio-economic impacts of uranium mining in Virginia. The result of that study is due in December 2011. VUI claims that their proposed mining operation will create hundreds of jobs in an area of the state struck by high unemployment. Environmentalists, however, expressed concern from the outset that the NRC study would focus more on providing recommendations for hypothetical ways in which uranium might be mined “safely,” rather than on whether there is a level of safety achievable that would justify undertaking the project in the first place. Moreover, concern is high that VUI and its supporters will attempt to introduce legislation in the 2012 GA session before there has been an adequate chance to review the findings of the NRC study.
Written by: Matt Zogby, GIELR Staff