Environment first but uranium second

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Print this page by Paul L. Spaulding

Virginia will be in the national spotlight as it considers lifting a 30-year moratorium on uranium mining. If it allows mining and milling operations to go forward, the commonwealth should use the opportunity to set an example in its legislative and regulatory process, environmental stewardship, and economic development and domestic energy policies.

Judging from the attention the issue already has received, the state’s performance in setting up a regulatory framework for uranium mining and milling will be critiqued by interested observers around the country, In addition to supporting, in an environmentally sound manner, the nation’s efforts to become less dependent on fossil fuels, the state’s adoption of stringent environmental regulations for uranium operations could influence the relocation decisions of prospective businesses, including those trending toward green initiatives in their operations and public relations policies. 

Smart people fill the queues lining up on each side of the moratorium issue, as well as in the state agencies charged with developing and administering regulations, should the ban be lifted.  Virginia is more than fully capable of managing this important endeavor in a responsible manner.

As has been pointed out by many, the interests and the strategies of the various stakeholders are not mutually exclusive.  Money is, of course, a primary element in the decision process, but the protection of human health and the environment should be seen as a paramount factor in the overall economic equation.  With so much at stake, (reports indicate that the uranium deposits in Pittsylvania Country are worth an estimated $7 billion at today’s prices), Virginia Uranium Inc. says it is willing and able to pay financial assurance mechanisms and permitting fees to support the necessary regulatory protection and oversight of its operations.  The goal is to ensure this funding, to be paid by the regulated entity to the regulators, is fully adequate and is not subject to change based on the ultimate production or marketability of the product.  There is an opportunity here for Virginia to establish a cutting-edge regulatory funding scheme that can serve as a national model.

There have been similar opportunities for Virginia to take the forefront in handling environmental issues.  In 1995, the commonwealth created a voluntary remediation program to foster the cleanup and redevelopment of contaminated properties.  Recently, the commonwealth has been recognized for establishing one of the most successful nutrient credit exchange programs in the country.  Also, over the years Virginia has been granted state administration of the federal program for regulating hazardous wastes. 

In addition, the commonwealth has historically been the No. 2 importer of solid waste in the nation.  Numerous landfills throughout the state have shown problems contaminating local groundwater, and there have been instances where individual landfill owners and operators have failed to abide by the state’s laws and regulations.  The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) has been challenged by budget constraints and by political decisions affecting the agency’s ability to manage the solid waste program.  However, overall, the quality of the work on the part of the agency has been evident over the years, and Virginia has been able to partner with environmental interests in evaluating solid waste landfill regulation and monitoring.

Regarding uranium mining, some observers see the storage of the mill tailings left over from the extraction process as a contamination threat to water resources.  The federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has the lead role in regulating uranium mining and milling.  Similar to a state’s ability to administer the federal solid waste program, states may apply to the NRC for regulatory authority over uranium operations.  Virginia has achieved “agreement state status” with the NRC for certain activities but not uranium mining or milling. The prevailing view in Virginia is that regulatory authority of uranium operations should remain with the NRC because of the agency’s vast technical experience regulating these operations. Leaving the NRC with the regulation of uranium operations also makes economic sense because the state would not incur the costs necessary to assemble and sustain the technical staff in a state agency to administer regulations.

Under this scenario, Virginia still would maintain its authority to regulate any potential discharges of wastewater associated with the management or storage of the mill tailings.  The Clean Water Act standard for the concentration of uranium in wastewater discharges from these units is “no discharge.”  There, however, is an exception to this zero discharge requirement for mills operating in areas with high net precipitation, for which Virginia could qualify.  This exception would allow for discharge in proportion to a storm event, subject to applicable effluent concentration limits.

Virginia could show its commitment to environmental protection by choosing to not take advantage of this exception. Instead it could adopt regulations that require tailing storage units capable of maintaining the “no discharge” standard during severe natural events such as hurricanes, earthquakes or flooding rainfall.

These and other environmental considerations have been examined extensively, and the recent report by National Academy of Sciences on uranium mining in Virginia provides a detailed analysis of the issues.  Gov. Bob McDonnell’s study group (which includes representatives from state agencies overseeing environmental, mining and economic development activities) is a useful measure for evaluating competing interests.  In addition to the concerns regarding economic development and job creation, worker safety and protection of the environment, there is also the consideration of successfully and responsibly accessing a domestic energy source.

Virginia is capable of winning on all fronts in its decision on uranium mining, but only if it ends the moratorium after developing the strictest and most conservative requirements for protecting human health and the environment.  Virginia’s citizens will have an opportunity to review and comment as the state develops these requirements.  We should all be interested in seeing that these requirements are the best they can possibly be.

Paul L. Spaulding is an attorney with the Richmond law firm Cravens & Noll PC.

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