Regions Southern Virginia

Regulatory input is one option in weighing mining moratorium, legislator says

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The Virginia General Assembly may look at the state regulatory structure of a uranium mining industry before deciding whether to lift a mining moratorium.

That was one option mentioned by state Sen. John Watkins (R-Midlothian) in a Tuesday session on uranium mining during the three-day Governor’s Conference on Energy at the Greater Richmond Convention Center.

Virginia Uranium Inc. wants to mine and mill an estimated 119-million pound uranium deposit in the Coles Hill area near Chatham in Pittsylvania County.  The General Assembly, however, would have to lift a moratorium on uranium mining imposed in the early 1980s.

The mining issue has been divisive, pitting groups who support mining as an economic development boon for a depressed region against those who believe that it could harm land values and potentially pollute drinking water. Localities as far away as Virginia Beach have become involved because it draws its water from Lake Gaston in Southern Virginia.

Action on the nearly 30-year-old moratorium will depend largely on the outcome of two studies due Dec. 1: an environmental study by the National Academy of Sciences and a socioeconomic study by Chmura Economics and Analytics.

Watkins said that, if the studies show that mining can be conducted safely, the moratorium should be lifted. One approach, he said, would be for the legislature to hold a direct vote on the moratorium. Another approach, he added, would be to first get input from state agencies such as the Department of Environmental Quality on how the industry would be regulated.

Watkins said that he learned in a visit to a uranium mining site in Saskatchewan, Canada, that regulators there insist on specialized permits tailored to specific mines rather than general permits.

Another speaker at the energy conference session, Henry Darwin, director of the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, said he lacks the power to fine uranium mines without taking them to court. The state has one mine in operation and four to five more in various stages of development.

Watkins said, if the legislature solicited input from regulators, it still could act on the moratorium in the same session. If uranium mining were permitted, it would take “five to six years before they turn the first shovel of dirt,” he said.

Watkins’ legislative career began as a member of the House of Delegates in 1982 when efforts to mine the Coles Hill deposit first arose. The moratorium was imposed while several legislative groups studied the issue. Watkins said those studies concluded that the risks to public health posed by mine would be minimal but economic factors caused the companies involved to drop their plans.

“There was never an outright ban” on uranium mining, Watkins said.

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