Industries Energy/Green

Watkins withdraws uranium bill in General Assembly

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State Sen. John Watkins (R-Powhatan) has withdrawn a bill that would have ended a 31-year-old ban on uranium mining in Virginia.

The bill, which sought to create a state regulatory framework for uranium mining, was stricken from the calendar of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources before it could be heard.

Many legislators had predicted bill lacked the votes to pass in the committee.

“The emotion and fear that some have inspired on this subject have, for now at least, overcome the science and the engineering that we have worked so hard in Virginia to elevate in our educational systems and in our research facilities,” Watkins said in a statement, adding “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.”

Virginia Uranium Inc. wants to mine and mill a 119 million pound deposit of uranium ore in the Coles Hill area near Chatham in Pittsylvania County. The deposit is worth an estimated $7 billion.

Supporters of the mining plan have said it would bring 300 high-paying jobs to Southern Virginia, a region fighting chronically high unemployment.

The move, however, has been opposed by Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, area legislators and the Pittsylvania Board of Supervisors, among others, citing health and safety concerns as well as potential damage to the region’s image.

In reaction to the demise of the Senate bill, Virginia Uranium endorsed an idea mentioned in Watkins’ statement. The senator said that, under the state Administrative Process Act,  Gov. Bob McDonnell can direct state agencies to draw up mining regulations even though the moratorium remains in place.

“Having these additional regulatory details would undoubtedly answer many remaining questions, and we believe would foster comfort with this promising industry and confidence in its safety,” company project manager Patrick Wales said in a statement.

McDonnell has not taken a position on lifting the mining ban.

The issue has been the subject of a number of studies, including one by the National Academy of Sciences and a nearly yearlong examination of possible regulations by a state agency working group.

Before the General Assembly session began, the Virginia Coal and Energy Commission, a legislative study panel, voted 11-2 to require the state to draft uranium-mining regulations but limiting operations only to Pittsylvania County.

In addition to Watkins’ bill, a similar bill has been proposed in the House of Delegates.

Watkins was a freshman legislator when the moratorium was imposed in the 1980s.

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