RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Proposed uranium mining in Virginia easily survived its first legislative test Monday, with lawmakers recommending the development of regulations for the mining of the radioactive ore.
Those rules — and whether a 30-year ban on such mining is lifted — ultimately would need to be approved by the General Assembly.
The Coal and Energy Commission voted 11-2 in support of legislation proposed by Sen. John Watkins that would have the effect of limiting mining to one company and the only known, commercially viable deposit of uranium in the state: Virginia Uranium Inc. and a 119-million-pound deposit in state's southern tier that is the largest in the U.S. It is valued at $7 billion. The bill also would set forth rules for the company's mining operation.
Opponents shouted out protests after the commission voted. "We will never forget what you've done," a woman said from the audience that included many people wearing neon green T-shirts reading "Keep the Ban."
Virginia Uranium welcomed the commission's recommendation and deemed it an important step by a panel that has grappled with the issue for years.
"I think it's significant, a very positive sign," said Patrick Wales, project manager for the mining company. "It's not just any commission. It is the commission that has presided over this for the past five years."
The General Assembly is expected to take up uranium mining in its 2013 session that convenes Wednesday.
"It's going to be close," said Watkins, a Republican from Powhatan and a commission member. "This is a big deal."
Full-scale uranium mining has never occurred on the East Coast. Critics contend mining and processing the ore has the potential to be an environmental nightmare if a catastrophic storm or torrential rains slammed Southside Virginia. The deposit is in the region along the North Carolina line, and is where radioactive waste would be stored for generations.
Virginia Uranium contends mining the so-called Coles Hill project and the milling can be done safely using best industry practices. It has said it will store the waste in below-ground containment units.
Watkins, who said he expects to have the legislation in hand by next week, said the bill would be crafted so "the Coles Hill people would be the only people who would qualify."
Asked why he would limit uranium mining in the state, Watkins said: "Because I want the bill to pass."
Critics contend that allowing uranium mining at the Coles Hill deposit could lead to other mining in other parts of the state, including central and northern Virginia where mining companies have shown interest in possible uranium deposits.