Solon of Southern Virginia

Civic leader raises concerns about uranium mining in his home county

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Print this page by Robert Powell

Ben J. Davenport Jr. has been a driving force in the transformation of Southern Virginia’s economy. So when he speaks up on an issue like lifting a 30-year-old moratorium on uranium mining, his opinion carries weight.

Davenport is the owner of two businesses in Chatham, not far from the Coles Hill area of Pittsylvania County where Virginia Uranium Inc. wants to mine a 119 million-pound uranium deposit worth an estimated $7 billion. He was part of a group of regional leaders, the Alliance for Progress in Southern Virginia, that asked the General Assembly to postpone action on the moratorium until a uranium mining study released in December by the National Academy of Sciences received further review.

“I know that Virginia Uranium would have liked to have seen the moratorium lifted so they could go ahead and begin to understand what Virginia might require as regulations,” Davenport says.  “But we felt that this was not appropriate, that there needed to be some time given to really study the reports, looking at other areas that had been involved with uranium mining to try to be much more educated about the issue.”

Gov. Bob McDonnell appeared to heed the request, appointing a group of state agency representatives to study the safety of uranium mining and recommend possible ways to regulate the industry.

Should the study group conclude that mining could be conducted safely, however, Davenport says he is not convinced lifting the moratorium is the right move, even in a region that badly needs new jobs. (The mine is expected to create 325 full-time jobs paying $50,000 to $70,000 a year.) He fears the stigma attached to uranium mining could cripple the area’s efforts to attract other business and investment at a time when a carefully planned economic blueprint is beginning to take effect.

“Here you have a game plan, and everything is falling in place,” he says, adding that uranium mining “just didn’t fit in.”

That plan was the brainchild of the Future of the Piedmont Foundation, a group co-founded by Davenport a dozen years ago.  Its catalyst was the 1998 Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement involving four major tobacco companies and 46 states, including Virginia. As part of the deal, the tobacco companies agreed to pay the states a total of at least $206 billion over 25 years.

The foundation’s mission was to determine how settlement money for Danville and Pittsylvania could best be used to revitalize its depressed economy.

The results include the $80 million Mid-Atlantic Broadband Cooperative, a fiber-optic network serving all of Southern Virginia, and the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research in Danville. The institute, a partnership with Virginia Tech, offers degree programs in conjunction with a number of schools while conducting research in the areas of horticulture and forestry; motorsports and vehicle performance; renewable energy and bioproducts; and robotics and unmanned systems.

“We wanted to create an icon that said we are evolving, we’re about change,” Davenport says. “I think people buy with their eyes.”

In addition to being chairman of the Future of the Piedmont Foundation, Davenport is past rector of the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors and a past chairman of the Virginia Chamber of Commerce. He serves on the boards of the Virginia Chamber, Danville Regional Foundation, Hargrave Military Academy, Virginia Early Childhood Foundation and American National Bank. 
Virginia Business talked with Davenport at his office in Chatham, where he runs First Piedmont Corp., a waste disposal company, and Davenport Energy, a regional petroleum supplier. The following is an edited transcript. 

Virginia Business: Has [the economic plan] accomplished what you intended?

Davenport:  The economy really hit us in the face.  We had a number of almost wins, big wins.  So … no, it didn’t.  But it has taken on a new life.  General Motors announced recently, that tied in connection with Virginia Tech’s Transportation Institute, it is putting its major tire research center here.  As a matter of fact, [GM] is talking about moving a lot more of its research to us.  We are affiliated with Virginia International Raceway [in Halifax County], so it would fit in perfectly.  The actual testing equipment is going to be at VIR, and they can utilize the track.  Every make and model tire that’s going on a General Motors [vehicle] is going to be tested at this facility before it’s approved. 

VB: How did you decide to come forward and take a position on [uranium mining]?

Davenport:  I don’t think it’s anything any more important that has ever happened.  Here you have a game plan, and everything is falling in place.  You’re moving more towards a skilled work force.  You’ve got a lot of revitalization taking place.  The timing of the uranium mine … just didn’t fit in really with anything we were thinking about. 

When [Alliance for Progress in Southern Virginia] started, the studies [commissioned on the effects of mining had just been released], and they were pretty voluminous.  … I know that Virginia Uranium would have liked to have seen the moratorium lifted so they could go ahead and begin to understand what regulations Virginia might require.  But we felt that this was not appropriate, that there needed to be some time given to really study the reports, looking at other areas that had been involved with uranium mining to try to be much more educated about the issue.

We’re talking about Virginia becoming the only state on the East Coast that has an active uranium mine.  Is that something that makes you feel good?  …  This is something that really not only affects here, but it affects the whole watershed all the way to Virginia Beach.

The core of uranium goes right up Highway 29 on up into Northern Virginia. If you lift the moratorium on uranium mining and uranium becomes quite valuable, there’s going to be an effort to mine those, too, I would think.

We felt that the governor basically said, “I want to do no harm.”  He would like to support any kind of energy development provided that it’s safe.  I think he thought that [National Academy of Sciences] study was going to offer some reassurance.  But it didn’t….  There were a lot of caveats. 

A mine is something that has a definite ending to it.  Once you have finished the core deposit, it’s over.  But in this case, you’re left with [tailings]. Virginia needs to understand what its responsibility is going to be.  Because tailings last pretty much forever, you have to be concerned about that.  So, not only in the active part of the mining operation but also after the fact, there are a lot of things to be viewed and considered.  That’s what I think this [state work study] group is doing.

VB: If they come back and say, “We think it can be done safely in Virginia,” would you support that?

Davenport: On the one hand, I’d be relieved that they felt like it could be done safely.  But on the other hand, I can’t come to grips with the stigma piece. 

We’ve got two prestigious schools in Chatham — Hargrave and Chatham Hall.  Both of these schools are heavily driven by tuition, and both of them have a lot of competition.  The kind of people that use these schools are people who are of good financial means, and they know how to exercise their options.  It comes down to, safe or not, do you send your child to a town where there’s a uranium mine?

If we were to lose these two schools, we would become a true mining town.  The whole economy would be wrapped around that. 

Hargrave has a $9 million annual budget and Chatham Hall a budget of about $7 million.  But tied in with that we have a lot of faculty that are members of the community.  It’s a neat little town.

I guess we’re being asked to take the risk not knowing the outcome [of uranium mining] while knowing on the other hand the penalty if one or both [schools] were to fail.  I’m on the board of Hargrave, and we say, “If you’ve got to explain that [uranium mining is] not a problem, you’ve already lost.”  All at once we’re no longer this quiet little Southern town … now it’s a town that is a mining town…

[We also] have a vibrant agricultural economy that’s actually on the upswing. Do the farmers feel threatened?  Yes.  If, in fact, somehow their product gets stigmatized, it could be devastating to them… 

Let’s go through the scenario of what happens if the General Assembly were to lift the moratorium.  Then begins a process that goes on for an extended period of time if, in fact, some of these environmental law firms decide to litigate it.  If they did, this thing could lag for 10 years before you actually got to the part where you actually had an operating facility. 

During that period of time, you’re in a period of limbo.  There won’t be any tax benefit.  There won’t be any jobs created.  It will be a period of time that people are concerned, “If I bought property … is that a good place to invest?” 

We’re being asked to take a risk that just never was in our playbook. 

VB: I understand a number of people wrote letters to the newspapers [criticizing your stand on uranium because] your [waste disposal] company had a landfill that became a Superfund site.  How have you responded to that?

Davenport:  The way I responded to that was, “You’re exactly right.”  The rules and regulations we were operating on when we first started our waste business became outdated.  We have these two pristine companies — Goodyear and Corning Glass — giving us things that, by definition, had become hazardous.  We go to the federal government and report this [after being notified by the companies] … We didn’t know Goodyear and Corning were doing anything bad, but we were the recipients. 

The site went on the Superfund site list. Ironically since then, every few years, the rules change again … So I would say that maybe we might be pretty darn well qualified to say: You may think the rules and regulations you start out with are going to be the ones you finish with, but I doubt it.  I’ve never had any regulation that I ever dealt with that didn’t become more stringent as time went on.  Things that used to be measured in parts per million now are measured in parts per billion.  The acceptable level of contaminants in different kinds of waste streams has changed dramatically…. 

So, if people want to criticize me, then darn right.  I know how bad it can be. 

VB: You have been chairman of the Virginia Chamber of Commerce. What do you see needs to be done to improve business conditions in Virginia or continue to keep good business conditions in Virginia?

Davenport:  Everybody who knows me knows my real pet [project] is early childhood development.  I think we unfortunately have a population [of children in poverty] growing up in an environment where they have no opportunity to be successful.  The Federal Reserve did a great study on this.  It pointed that, with the right kind of help for children from the time they’re born through the first few years of their life, you have the opportunity to improve their IQ tremendously. 

There’s no place that doesn’t have the problem in the United States of a shortage of qualified workers …  [At the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research] we have a STEM [science technology engineering and mathematics] mobile lab that goes around to all the schools to try to get children excited about science and math.  But I would argue that’s too late really.
We sold the Danville Regional Hospital for over $200 million.  With that money, we created the Danville Regional Foundation.  We have invested over $5 million in early childhood development in the Danville-Pittsylvania County area… [There also is a] statewide early childhood development called Smart Beginnings. … I hope we’re going to be able to prove to the commonwealth the value of this [kind of investment].  I think we have an opportunity to say to the legislature and to others: If Virginia really wants to be a place with highly skilled workers, then that’s the way you set yourself apart.

The sad thing about it is we tend to try to address people later on in life.  In our textile economy in Danville, if you had a ninth-grade education, that was sufficient.  So now you say to that unemployed textile worker, “Well, you need to go back to school.”  He or she is not ready.  I’m not saying it’s an impossibility, but the old adage it’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks is true.  It’s a tough challenge….

You’ve got to do one of two things.  You’ve either got to fix your educational system, or you’ve got to open the doors to more foreign workers…

In Virginia, we’re fortunate we’re well placed with our location to be a hub for a lot of things.  We’re blessed with great educational institutions.  We’re blessed with having access to good ports….  But we’re two states [in terms of the] economy.  We’ve got one that’s the Northern Virginia/Richmond/Tidewater economy, and then you’ve got the rest of the state.  Like it or not, we have lost our best and brightest to other areas.  If we’re going to rebuild our work force, then we’ve got to deal with the population that we have.  In order to do that, we’ve need to understand that it’s a long-term project ...

[Many promising changes are taking place in Southern Virginia, including creation of the Southern Regional Alliance, a new economic development partnership, and the revitalization of downtown Danville.]  People’s attitudes are changing.  I think if you don’t change people’s mindsets and attitudes, you can never get them to be positive about rebirth of a community …
At the [Future of the Piedmont Foundation], one of the guys said, “If I close my eyes, what do I see this looking like 10 or 20 years from now?”  I see a beautiful river, and I can see shops and technology companies. All of those things fit together. I don’t see a mine.

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