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Uranium Mining Foes Upset Over Speakers’ Sign-Up List

Uranium mining opponents have accused pro-mining interests of stacking the sign-up list for speakers at Tuesday night’s Uranium Mining Subcommittee meeting to dominate early public comments and skew media coverage in favor of the industry.

The agenda for the 6 p.m. public meeting of the Virginia Coal and Energy Commission’s Uranium Mining Subcommittee at Chatham High School indicated a sign-up list for those wishing to comment would be available at least one hour before the start of the hearing. But opponents who arrived at about 4:30 p.m. said they saw about a dozen names at the top of the list that appeared to have been written by the same person.

Karen Maute, a uranium-mining opponent, said the move was a corporate strategy to dominate the meeting while the press was covering the proceedings.

Speakers were given three minutes to voice their opinion at Tuesday’s hearing.

George Stanhope, a Chatham resident who opposes plans to mine and mill an ore deposit near the town, said he arrived at the school at about 4:25 p.m. and saw the first 12 names with the same handwriting.

He said he came early because he was concerned about possible busloads of pro-mining people arriving.

Stanhope was speaker number 23 on the list and said he believes pro-mining interests were name-stacking as a strategy to get favorable television coverage for their cause.

Ray Ganthner, chairman of the Virginia Energy Independence Alliance (VEIA), said he and his wife arrived at about 4:20 p.m., and he had asked a VEIA colleague to “sign up a dozen or so of us to speak.”

He said he and other individuals “…asked my colleague for assistance because we wanted the opportunity to speak at the meeting but were not sure we would be able to attend for the entire duration,” Ganthner said via e-mail. “This was in no way a ploy to skew media coverage…”

Virginia Uranium Inc., which seeks to mine and mill a 119-million pound uranium ore deposit at Coles Hill about six miles northeast of Chatham, is a member of the VEIA.

Ellen Porter, counsel for the Virginia Coal and Energy Commission, said she and commission staff arrived at the school at about 3 p.m., prepared for the meeting, set up a table that included the agenda and a blank, numbered sign-up sheet and left to have dinner at 4 p.m.

Porter said the sign-up sheet was left unattended and she assumed no one would sign up until an hour before the 6 p.m. meeting. Porter, who said the incident was “ a little embarrassing for us,” realized she had made a mistake.

“I had not thought that that would have occurred,” Porter said. “We’re certainly not going to do it again.”

Porter said the Uranium Mining Subcommittee has nothing to do with the sign-up list. Its members only used it call out names of speakers, she said.

David Bovenizer, counsel for Delegate Lee Ware, the subcommittee’s chairman, said, “We have no knowledge of this.”

Bovenizer said sometimes a courtesy of proxies signing in is practiced at the General Assembly to “accommodate folks who will be on time for a hearing but cannot sign in themselves. As far as anything being ‘stacked,’ no, of course not.’”

Georgie Stuart, a mining opponent who lives in Chatham, said she signed up at about 4:35 p.m. She was already the 29th name on the list, but she said she only saw two people at the school at the time. The first 10 names appeared to be written in the same handwriting, she said.

“They looked like they were written the same way,” Stuart said.

Barbara Hudson, a Chatham resident who said she is concerned about uranium mining and milling’s potential harm to the community, attended the meeting. Hudson said she believes the listing of the names was intended so pro-mining speakers could take up early media coverage before the press left, so news watchers would have the impression that Pittsylvania County supports uranium mining.  

Patrick Wales, VUI project manager, said opponents have used opportunities to pontificate their negative views of uranium mining. Wales, who was listed among the final 10 of 70 speakers, said he was the only person to speak on behalf of VUI and that the company “has always followed the rules.”

Wales said he had no problem with a group of speakers being pro-mining and noted that there were 60 speakers ahead of him.

Dozens speak out on uranium mining

The Virginia Coal and Energy Commission’s Uranium Mining Subcommittee met at Chatham High School on Tuesday night, where residents filled the auditorium, and about 70 people spoke out on the scope of a proposed study to examine the socioeconomic impacts of uranium mining and milling.

The meeting took place to allow public comment on a draft of the study’s scope that will examine the social, economic and environmental impacts of this proposed new industry. Those who commented signed up before the meeting started and were given three minutes to speak.

Opponents and skeptics requested the subcommittee avoid rushing into the study and repeating other similar studies being conducted across the state. They also said mining would lower property values and adversely affect other businesses in the area.

Mining supporters, for the most part, said the study should address questions of how uranium mining would bring much-needed jobs to the community, generate tax revenue and carry a region that has been hit by the local decline in tobacco and textiles into the 21st century.

Virginia Uranium Inc. seeks to mine and mill a 119 million-pound uranium ore deposit at Coles Hill, about six miles northeast of Chatham. Virginia has had a moratorium on uranium mining since 1982.

Delegate Donald Merricks, R-Pittsylvania County, said he is in favor of conducting studies to find information, and said it is important to address every question and leave no stone unturned. Merricks also expressed concerns about how mining and mining could shape perceptions of the community.

Hargrave Military Academy and Chatham Hall recruitment — as well as local dairies — could be affected by uranium mining, Merricks said.

Delegate Danny Marshall, R-Danville, said there are going to be three socioeconomic studies, and the subcommittee should review the other studies’ questions to avoid redundancy.

The watershed in the Pittsylvania County area that goes to Virginia Beach also provides drinking water for the Raleigh-Durham, N.C., area. Marshall said he wonders who will pay the bill if North Carolina files a lawsuit over contaminated water.

Sen. Robert Hurt, R-Chatham, said: “This is one of the most important issues that we in Southside Virginia (have) ever faced. So it is important that we get it right.”

Hurt, whose father Henry Hurt is a VUI investor, also said he hopes the subcommittee will consider that findings from statewide technical study could be useful for the socioeconomic study.

Willie Fitzgerald, head of Pittsylvania County branch of the NAACP, said the organization hopes the study will examine how the Coles Hill project will generate greater tax revenues to improve schools in the community.

Larry Aaron, a teacher and local historian, requested the committee to examine the issue of perception. The area is known for a dying economy, high teen pregnancy rate, economic stagnation, underfunded schools and its elevated high-school dropout rate. If the Coles Hill project can be done safely, it could offer an opportunity for a shift in the perception of this region, Aaron said.

Jim Beard, a geologist from Martinsville, said he is concerned whether his children will be able to stay here after they graduate from high school and college. We need to find something to replace tobacco and textiles that have left, he said. Coles Hill will provide jobs, adding that any attempt to extract energy from the Earth will have its problems.

This country needs to strive for energy independence, he said.

Halifax Town Manager Carl Espy said the Coal and Energy Commission should not rush into a socioeconomic study. The subcommittee should evaluate the impact of public opinion after the technical study is available, Espy said.

Nancy Pool, president of the Halifax County Chamber of Commerce, said the subcommittee has just $200,000 to pay for a study and the most qualified research groups may not be interested in doing the study for that amount of money. Lifting the moratorium on uranium mining would mean spending more money and expanding the size of government, Pool said. A study should examine how the mining industry could pay for any and all costs.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This story is reprinted with permission from the Danville Register and Bee.)