By Kenric Ward | Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau
RICHMOND – Uranium mining is turning into the third rail of Virginia politics this election year.
Though Southside Virginia has one of nation’s highest concentrations of the material, the state’s gubernatorial candidates are treating it as, well, radioactive.
Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe has deftly danced around the subject. As the Richmond Times Dispatch reported last week, the McLean businessman huddled behind closed doors at a Richmond law firm that has lobbied against uranium mines.
“During a private meeting at Williams Mullen, McAuliffe signaled greater doubt, if not hostility, to a proposed uranium mine in GOP-leaning Southside,” Jeff Schapiro wrote.
But McAuliffe also told the Associated Press he was open to considering the idea. Neither McAuliffe nor his campaign boss responded to Watchdog’s request for comment or clarification.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli is more consistent, and proactive.
The attorney general has said drafting state regulations would address unanswered questions swirling around the issue.
“This would clarify what would be involved and would eliminate any uncertainty prior to the General Assembly’s decision,” Cuccinelli’s office said in a statement.
“Mr. Cuccinelli feels the factors that should be weighed … include the safety of miners and the surrounding community, jobs created, tax revenues generated, the environmental impact, the cultural impact on the region, and energy independence for Virginia and America,” said spokeswoman Caroline Gibson.
Gov. Bob McDonnell bought time, but not progress, when he directed a commission to study the issue last year. After the Uranium Working Group presented a lengthy report detailing the pros and cons of lifting the state’s moratorium on uranium mining, lawmakers froze.
Sen. John Watkins, R-Midlothian, who introduced legislation to order the formulation of mining regulations, withdrew his bill last January.
Opponents used another study by Chmura Economics & Analytics to bolster their political blockade.
Before the 2013 General Assembly convened, Cale Jaffe, of the Southern Environmental Law Center, told reporters that a uranium mine could be a $6 billion net benefit to the state, or an $11 billion loss. The latter number scared lawmakers into inaction.
But Virginia Uranium Inc., a private company that wants to mine a 200-acre field at Pittsylvania County’s Coles Hill, says critics cherry-picked the Chmura findings, misrepresent the risks and perpetuate confusion.
Patrick Wales, project manager for Virginia Uranium, told Watchdog: “The proposal by Sen. Watkins and Delegate (Terry) Kilgore (R-Gate City) to develop regulations is a reasonable approach to this issue, especially given that some legislators have cited ‘unanswered questions’ they would like to see addressed.”
In fact, the Chmura study listed four possible scenarios, ranging from zero risk to full-scale environmental disaster. The researchers concluded that the most likely outcome was one of minimal risk, with a “possibility” of “minor leaks” of radioactive tailings.
Under that scenario, a $5 billion net benefit to the state was projected over 10 years.
But the most costly — and unlikely — of scenarios struck fear in the hearts of local and state politicians. The Farm Bureau and several Southside business groups also voiced fears that a uranium mine would lower land values and retard economic-development efforts in the region.
“I can live with mining, but not the milling. We’ll have a Superfund waste site forever,” concluded Delegate Don Merricks, R-Chatham. Amid the growing political brouhaha in and around his Southside district, Merricks announced he would not run for re-election this year.
Wales’ company isn’t quitting, however. He said that if McDonnell is serious about transforming Virginia into the “Energy Capital of the East Coast,” the governor and his successor have an opportunity with uranium.
“Uranium generates 20 times more BTUs (British Thermal Units) than offshore oil, on a much smaller footprint,” Wales said.
Robin Millican, of the market-oriented Institute for Energy Research in Washington, D.C., said Virginia has an estimated 100 million pounds of uranium – more than one quarter of all known U.S. reserves.
Millican accused uranium opponents of spreading “baseless hyperbole,” and the Washington Times blistered McDonnell for being MIA on “the single largest opportunity for energy development under the state’s control.”
“Virginia’s antiquated moratorium on uranium mining prevents development of the largest untapped uranium deposit in the United States. The Coles Hill site … promises more than 1,000 jobs, $5 billion in economic activity and hundreds of millions of dollars in new state and local tax revenue,” the Times editorialized.
Uranium-mining proponents hope that Cuccinelli, who earned an engineering degree from George Mason University before getting his law degree at the University of Virginia, will bring a more scientific approach.
Edward Long, a physicist and political activist in Waynesboro, calls mining opponents “narrow-minded.”
Long said a logical strategy would direct to the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy, as well as the Department of Environmental Quality, “to look at regulations.”
Despite the 30-plus-year moratorium on uranium mining, the political half-life of the issue remains a long one in Richmond. And the National Academy of Sciences says the commonwealth faces “steep hurdles.”
Contrary to assertions by mining opponents, lifting the state moratorium would be the first, not the last, step in a five- to eight-year process of environmental reviews, permitting decisions and public input before a single shovel enters the ground at Coles Hill.
Amid the heated campaign rhetoric of the 2013 election season, the question remains: Who has the political will to take the first step toward the third rail?
NEXT: The science and business of uranium mining in Virginia.
Contact Kenric Ward at [email protected] or at (571) 319-9824. @Kenricward