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/