RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — The subject of years of study and passionate debate around Virginia — a proposal to mine uranium — is finally heading to the General Assembly in what is expected to be one of the fiercest environmental battles in recent memory.
First stop is the legislature's Coal and Energy Commission on Monday, when the panel of House and Senate members is expected to make a recommendation on proposed legislation to establish a state regulatory framework for uranium mining. The regulations must be in place before the state's 1982 moratorium on uranium mining can be lifted.
Delegate Terry Kilgore, a Scott County Republican and chairman of the commission, said he supports the creation of regulations and stressed it does not amount to endorsement of uranium mining.
"People want to feel some comfort level with the regulations to make sure they are protecting them," he said.
While the commission can't end the debate on uranium on Monday, it could influence the outcome of the legislation in the 2013 session that starts Wednesday.
"We can't kill anything, we can't pass anything," said Delegate Greg Habeeb, a Salem Republican and a member of the commission. He said he will support sending the regulatory legislation to the full General Assembly, and he expects a majority of the commission will agree.
"I would think if we would give a negative vote, it would not bode well for the bill," Habeeb said. A positive vote, he said, would just be the first of many steps — and it would be years before uranium could be mined.
Sen. John C. Watkins, a Republican from Powhatan and vice chairman of the commission, supports uranium mining and has sponsored legislation that would lay out regulations governing mining that would need to be in place before the so-called Coles Hill deposit could be tapped. At 119 million pounds, it is the largest known uranium deposit in the U.S. and one of the largest in the world.
Watkins based his legislation on the work of the multi-agency Uranium Working Group created by Gov. Bob McDonnell, who has said he has not formed a position on uranium mining. The group submitted its report to McDonnell in late November but did not recommend whether the decades-old ban should be lifted.
Watkins said he has asked McDonnell a couple of times whether he has reached an opinion on uranium mining. The senator said it's an important consideration as the issue moves to the Capitol.
"It would be a vast expenditure of time, effort and resources to get legislation passed, then have him veto it or fail to sign it," Watkins said of the governor, who has made energy development a cornerstone of his Republican administration. "It's his working group that he asked to delve into this thing. I would expect he would endorse or not endorse the recommendations of that working group."
McDonnell, who has met privately with representatives on both sides of the issue, has said the overriding factor in his decision is whether uranium mining and milling "can be conducted with a high degree of public safety, and whether suitable assurances can be given that the air, water, health and well-being of citizens will be protected."
Spokesman J. Tucker Martin said McDonnell is still reviewing the matter. "At this time, the governor has not determined if he will make any recommendation on the issue," Martin wrote in an email.
Virginia Uranium Inc. revived interest in the Pittsylvania County deposit several years ago. Initial interest in the uranium discovery in the 1970s waned in the wake of the Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania. The General Assembly then put the ban in place until regulations were developed.
The company says the uranium it would mine about 30 miles north of the North Carolina state line can be done safely using modern mining methods, would create hundreds of jobs in an economically depressed region and ease the nation's reliance on uranium from other countries to fuel domestic nuclear power plants. More than 90 percent of the uranium used in U.S. nuclear power plants is from Canada and other sources abroad.
Opponents, which include farm, religious, environmental and municipal groups, argue the environmental risks far outweigh any benefits. They are particularly concerned that tailings — the waste generated after the ore is mined — could foul water supplies for localities that include the state's largest city, Virginia Beach. The city opposes uranium mining.
Virginia Uranium has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars to be the first full-scale uranium mine operator on the East Coast, and many of those dollars have gone to the General Assembly, including members of the commission. Kilgore, Watson and Habeeb each was on the receiving end of some of the $161,500 in campaign contributions Virginia Uranium has made since 2011, according to the Virginia Public Access Project, which tracks money in politics.
Habeeb acknowledged that such contributions can create a "perception issue," but he added the stakes are too high to allow a political contribution to influence your vote.
"Any elected official who changes or modifies or does anything based on a single contribution or a series of contributions in what is a very expensive game is just crazy," he said.
Watkins' legislation, which is still being drafted, would go to the Commerce and Labor committees in both chambers. The prospects of passage in the General Assembly are not known.
Steve Szkotak can be reached on Twitter at https://twitter.com/sszkotakap.
Uranium Working Group: http://www.uwg.vi.virginia.gov/
Virginia Uranium Inc.: http://www.virginiauranium.com/
Keep the Ban: http://keeptheban.org/