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Drive to mine uranium in Va. comes to quiet pause

  • Article by: STEVE SZKOTAK
  • Associated Press
  • December 14, 2013 - 2:00 PM

RICHMOND, Va. — A company is suspending its campaign to mine one of the world's largest known deposits of uranium ore in Virginia, concluding that Gov.-elect Terry McAuliffe's opposition presents a significant challenge over the next four years.

Virginia Uranium Inc. said it will not back the introduction of uranium mining legislation in the 2014 session of the General Assembly, which would be a first step to tap a 119-million-pound deposit of uranium in Pittsylvania County known as Coles Hill.

"The company is currently evaluating all its options going forward, including a substantial reduction of expenses on the Coles Hill project for the interim period," VUI's parent company Virginia Energy Resources Inc. wrote in financial statement and filed in late November, several weeks after McAuliffe's election on Nov. 5.

McAuliffe, a Democrat, had said before his election he would not support lifting the state's decades-long ban on uranium mining and affirmed that position after his election.

Patrick Wales, project manager for Virginia Uranium, issued a statement to The Associated Press on Saturday: "We are in this for the long haul and are committed to developing the Coles Hill project. We will continue evaluating all options to move the project forward."

The company's low-key announcement to temporarily abandon its bid to end the moratorium comes after it invested hundreds of thousands of dollars over the past several years in political contributions, lobbying and to fly delegations of Virginia lawmakers to France and Canada to tour uranium mining and processing facilities.

But the effort fell woefully short, and legislation in the 2013 session never got out of committee.

The company said Sen. John Watkins, a suburban Richmond Republican who had been its primary advocate in the Capitol, had planned to introduce legislation again in 2014.

"However, Governor-Elect Terry McAuliffe's public announcement that he intends to veto any pro-uranium legislation means that any such bill would fail to become law," Virginia Energy wrote in its financial filing.

Full-scale uranium mining has never been conducted on the East Coast and opponents said Virginia would be a poor place to start, citing its wet climate and the fierce weather that often rakes the state. Most uranium mining is done in arid parts of the globe.

The Coles Hill project, they said, would be a threat to public drinking supplies and farmland that encircles the uranium deposit less than 10 miles from Chatham. The mining would also include a milling operation to separate the radioactive ore from the rock.

Critics said that posed one of the biggest threats to the environment because of radioactive waste that would have to be stored for generations. Communities as far away as Virginia Beach, which draws public drinking supplies from the region, had taken a stand against the mine. Virginia Beach is about 200 miles away.

Virginia Uranium said the waste would have been stored in underground containment units that would keep it sealed and secure, even during floods or powerful storms.

In its financial statement, the company acknowledged among the "primary risks" to ending the moratorium is "gaining the confidence of the local community that the mining and milling can be safely conducted to protect human health and the environment."

The proposed mining had been the focus of a half dozen studies, none of which moved either side. A study by the National Academy of Sciences, completed in late 2011, was the most widely accepted.

While it did not make a recommendation on the ban, the authors said Virginia would have to overcome steep hurdles before allowing mining and milling of the ore to ensure the safety of workers, the public and the environment.

Mining supporters cited a section of the report that states "internationally accepted best practices" governing mining could be a starting point for Virginia.

When legislation to end the prohibition failed in 2013, legislative advocates encouraged Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell to use his powers to put regulations in place to help guide future debate on mining. With his four-year term coming to a close, McDonnell hasn't acted on the suggestion.

In an interview with the AP in November, McDonnell indicated he was not willing to push the ball forward as he was leaving state government. He cited a state study that was presented to the General Assembly.

"We did a detailed study at the legislators' request last year and engaged a lot of people and a lot of resources and presented that report to the General Assembly," he said. "And they chose, even though I thought we gave them all the answers that they would have needed, they chose not to move forward on that."

McDonnell had made energy development a cornerstone of his administration, including nuclear power.

© 2014 Star Tribune