Putting the ura­nium cart be­fore the horse


In2007, Vir­ginia Ura­nium LLC (VUI) be­gan lob­by­ing hard for the Gen­eral Assem­bly’s stand­ing mora­to­rium on ura­nium min­ing and milling to be lifted. The cor­po­ra­tion has big plans to start a min­ing and milling op­er­a­tion in Pitt­syl­va­nia County, and the Pied­mont En­vi­ron­men­tal Coun­cil (PEC) and our al­lies have fought them ev­ery step of the way. There is sim­ply too much at stake. Ura­nium min­ing and milling in Vir­ginia would be an ex­tremely dan­ger­ous ex­per­i­ment. In the United States, ura­nium has only been mined in arid re­gions, where low rain­fall makes it more fea­si­ble to con­tain the ra­dioac­tive and toxic min­ing waste. Vir­ginia is any­thing but arid.

With up to 40 inches of rain a year, hur­ri­canes, dere­chos, tor­na­dos, earth­quakes and flood­ing, our wa­ter and over­all health would be put at se­ri­ous risk of ex­po­sure to toxic sludge. Imag­ine how dif­fi­cult it would be to keep ra­dioac­tive waste con­tained if we were hit by a trop­i­cal storm that de­posited over 25 inches of rain in 24 hours, as has hap­pened in Vir­ginia in the past.

For con­text, this Au­gust’s Hur­ri­cane Isaac only dropped 9 to 18 inches. Nu­mer­ous lo­cal­i­ties in Vir­ginia and North Carolina are con­cerned about the po­ten­tial health im­pacts for cit­i­zens. Since VUI stated its in­ten­tion of min­ing in Pitt­syl­va­nia County, al­most 40 gov­ern­ment en­ti­ties – rep­re­sent­ing more than 35 lo­cal­i­ties in Vir­ginia and North Carolina – have taken ac­tion to up­hold the mora­to­rium on ura­nium min­ing and milling. More than 20 of these lo­cal­i­ties are in Vir­ginia. And these are purely gov­ern­men­tal en­ti­ties – there are more than 40 ad­di­tional or­ga­ni­za­tions from both states that have stood up in sup­port of the ban.

When the Gen­eral Assem­bly opened ses­sion last Jan­uary, it seemed that all of the hard work of PEC and our al­lies had paid off. De­spite the mas­sive lob­by­ing ef­fort by VUI, head-coun­ters were say­ing that the com­pany did not have the votes in the Gen­eral Assem­bly that they needed to re­peal the ban. VUI lacked the po­lit­i­cal sup­port, par­tic­u­larly af­ter the Na­tional Academy of Sciences (NAS) re­leased a study in De­cem­ber con­firm­ing that ura­nium min­ing and milling in Vir­ginia would ex­pose res­i­dents to un­prece­dented risks. Then, on Jan. 19, Gov. Bob McDonnell wrote a let­ter to the Gen­eral Assem­bly re­quest­ing that there be no ef­fort to lift the mora­to­rium on ura­nium min­ing and milling this year.

This may sound like great news, but there is im­por­tant fine print that is cause for se­ri­ous con­cern. Yes, the votes weren’t there and yes, McDonnell wrote the let­ter to call off any leg­is­la­tion re­gard­ing ura­nium min­ing and milling for 2012. But, in this same let­ter, McDonnell also an­nounced the cre­ation of his Ura­nium Work­ing Group (UWG). McDonnell in­structed his hand-picked group of state agency rep­re­sen­ta­tives to be­gin draft­ing “con­cep­tual” laws and reg­u­la­tions for ura­nium min­ing. The UWG is not draft­ing these con­cep­tual laws and reg­u­la­tions alone, how­ever. They’ve hired a new con­sult­ing firm with a short track record, and what lit­tle record they have is not en­cour­ag­ing.

Some mem­bers of the firm have had a vested in­ter­est in ura­nium min­ing – one of the con­sul­tants was pre­vi­ously em­ployed by a ura­nium min­ing cor­po­ra­tion, and an­other was a mem­ber on a ura­nium com­pany’s ad­vi­sory board. This firm’s bias shows: from PEC’s read­ing, they haven’t found a mine they didn’t ap­prove of. To make mat­ters worse, these rules are be­ing writ­ten be­hind closed doors with lit­tle to no pub­lic in­volve­ment. We sus­pect that they will be brought to the Gen­eral Assem­bly in 2013 – a neatly wrapped pack­age that could push our leg­is­la­tors to­ward lift­ing the ban. PEC is con­cerned that the UWG’s process shows a dis­re­gard for po­lit­i­cal trans­parency, pub­lic in­put, the mul­ti­ple re­ports high­light­ing the risks in­volved and the leg­isla­tive process.

In Vir­ginia, leg­is­la­tors cre­ate laws and then rel­e­vant state agen­cies come up with the reg­u­la­tions to im­ple­ment those laws; laws pre­cede reg­u­la­tions. The UWG turns this sys­tem on its head. Ura­nium min­ing and milling is cur­rently il­le­gal in the Com­mon­wealth, and yet this group is cur- rently draft­ing reg­u­la­tions. Vir­ginia del­e­gate Ken­neth Plum, of the 36th dis­trict, re­cently com­mented on this flawed process in a blog post:

“Gov. Bob McDonnell ap­pointed a task force to write reg­u­la­tions that would need to be met if the ban was lifted. That group . . . has been strongly crit­i­cized for the lack of trans­parency in its work. There is a great like­li­hood that the reg­u­la­tions that are de­vel­oped will be used as a jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for lift­ing the ban. There are well-funded in­dus­try lob­by­ists at work ac­tively look­ing for ways to get around the ban . . . The threat to hu­man health out­weighs any ar­gu­ments for lift­ing the ban.”

Draft­ing laws is the job of Vir­ginia’s leg­is­la­tors, not that of a work­ing group that was hand-picked by the gover­nor. Fur­ther­more, laws are meant to be drafted in the pub­lic sphere of the Gen­eral Assem­bly, not be­hind closed doors.

Gov. McDonnell has said that pub­lic safety trumps eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment when it comes to ura­nium min­ing, and we want to take him at his word. Yet, we are con­cerned that his work­ing group has put the cart be­fore the horse – draft­ing reg­u­la­tions be­fore the leg­is­la­ture has taken any ac­tion; hir­ing a com­pany that ap­pears to be stacked with pro­po­nents of min­ing and milling; and giv­ing lit­tle to no cred­i­ble op­por­tu­ni­ties for the pub­lic to weigh in.

PEC has been study­ing this is­sue since it first came up in the 1980’s, and the facts that sup­ported the ban then have not changed. No study has defini­tively said that min­ing and milling can be done safely in this re­gion – and we don’t ex­pect that one will. Ura­nium min­ing and milling in Vir­ginia would be an un­prece­dented ex­per­i­ment that would put the air, wa­ter and lands of the Com­mon­wealth at risk for the ben­e­fit of a few in­vestors. PEC staff will be work­ing hard to keep you updated as this is­sue de­vel­ops. In the mean­time, tell the Gover­nor and your leg­is­la­tors that this is not a gam­ble that the Com­mon­wealth should take.

No drafts, no more stud­ies of stud­ies. Keep the ban in place.

Katherine Vance is an ed­i­tor and mul­ti­me­dia pro­ducer for the PEC.

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