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Governor wants uranium moratorium to stay in 2012

Business leaders, medical professionals and area legislators were in Richmond on Wednesday urging the General Assembly to scuttle plans for ending the state’s 30-year moratorium on uranium mining.

Halifax Regional Health System CEO Chris Lumsden, Halifax County Industrial Development Authority Chairman John Cannon, Halifax County Chamber of Commerce President Nancy Pool and other members comprising The Virginia Coalition, were among those presenting their case in Richmond.

At a press conference, they suggested legislators study recently released reports detailing economic and environmental effects that may occur if Virginia Uranium Inc. is allowed to mine the $7 to $10 billion 119-million pound uranium deposit at Coles Hill in neighboring Pittsylvania County.

One day later, Gov. Bob McDonnell responded by asking the General Assembly to take no action to permit uranium mining during its 2012 session.

Instead, the governor called for the continuation of the state’s moratorium on uranium mining pending a comprehensive and on-site study of the issue to be completed by a newly-created multi-agency state workgroup.

The governor’s directive that the state work group look further into the specific issues surrounding mining at a particular site in the commonwealth follows a thorough review by the McDonnell administration of the recent National Academy of Sciences report that looked broadly at uranium mining in Virginia.

The report noted, “At present, there are gaps in legal and regulatory coverage for activities involved in uranium mining, processing, reclamation and long-term stewardship. Some of these gaps have resulted from the moratorium on uranium mining that Virginia has in place; others are gaps in current laws or regulations, or in the way that they are applied.”

The governor also consulted with agency heads, legislators, business leaders and others concerning the prudent course of action on the complicated issue.

Speaking about his decision to seek greater information regarding the efficacy and safety of uranium mining in Pittsylvania County, the governor said, “Over the past month I, along with members of our administration, have analyzed the NAS report on uranium mining in the commonwealth in great detail. We have spoken with local legislators, agency heads, scientists as well as business and community leaders in and around the potential mining region.

“To further understand the issue members of our administration, including technical experts, traveled to Coles Hill to view the property personally.  They also traveled to a uranium mining site in Canada to gain a greater understanding of the scientific and legal issues that must be addressed if Virginia were to move forward.

“Yesterday, I received a letter from a bipartisan group of Virginia legislators from the Uranium Subcommittee of the Coal and Energy Commission of the General Assembly asking that our administration delay any action on uranium mining until such time that a more thorough and on-site review of the issue could take place.

“As a result of our analysis, and consideration of the points made in the letter, I believe that such an on-site study must take place before any action is taken. The NAS study was broadly helpful in providing a better understanding of the associated economic benefits, which are potentially significant, as well as the possible risks, which are potentially serious, associated with uranium mining in this geography and climate.

“However, in order for an informed decision to be made by state lawmakers, we need more detailed information. Before we make any decisions about whether or not to proceed down the path to development, we must be certain that uranium mining can be conducted safely and responsibly. Public safety must be the primary factor in the ultimate determination as to whether to proceed with uranium mining,” he added.

The governor said he sent a letter to his Secretaries of Natural Resources, Commerce and Trade and Health and Human Resources asking them to create a working group, comprised of the appropriate technical staff from the Departments of Health, Environmental Quality, and Mines, Minerals and Energy, which will develop a draft regulatory framework for presentation to the Coal and Energy Commission next year.

“My letter sets out more than a dozen issues that need to be addressed by the working group. Further, I have directed the group to report their progress to the legislative Uranium Subcommittee no fewer than three times over the next year, and to allow thorough opportunity for public participation in its work,” he said.

“I have been clear that we must base all decisions on this matter on public safety and science. While uranium mining could mean the creation of high-paying jobs for our citizens, a boost for the important nuclear power industry, increased economic development for the region, and the generation of significant tax revenue for the entire commonwealth, we must prudently study this issue to ensure that such mining would not impair the health of our people, or the condition of our environment.”

The governor said the NAS study, “while broadly helpful, left many questions still unanswered. Some of those questions can only be answered through an on-site evaluation of Coles Hill and the surrounding area.”

He said he awaits the draft statutory proposal and regulatory framework from this working group.

“This analysis will arm the commonwealth’s policy makers with more information and data so that they can soundly determine the proper course of action moving forward,” he concluded.

Responding to the governor’s announcement Thursday, Virginia Uranium Project Manager Patrick Wales said, Virginia Uranium welcomes the governor’s decision to have Virginia’s regulatory agencies begin the process of drafting a regulatory and permitting program for uranium mining in the commonwealth.

“The governor’s decision is an important step toward establishing a regulatory framework that will enable our company to build and operate the safest uranium mine in the world right here in Virginia.

“Every independent scientific study conducted by the commonwealth over the past 30 years has come to the same conclusion, that uranium mining can be conducted safely in Virginia as long as stringent regulatory standards and industry best practices are put in place,” Wales said.

“The governor’s decision moves the commonwealth one step closer toward adopting these standards and will allow our company to demonstrate our sincere commitment to protecting the environment and the well-being of Virginia’s citizens.”

Wales said as the National Academy of Sciences and Chmura socioeconomic studies have shown, there is a strong foundation of international best practices and regulatory standards on which the commonwealth can draw to establish a rigorous program for regulating uranium mining.

“These advanced practices and regulatory standards adopted in Canada and in some Western U.S. states have proven successful over the last 30 years at protecting the environment, worker safety and public health,” he added.

“Over the next year, the commonwealth will have the benefit of reviewing these international models to ensure we establish the most robust and protective program in the world,” he said.

Wales said Virginia Uranium looks forward to the opportunity to work with the citizens of Virginia and Virginia’s regulatory agencies over the next year to ensure “that the commonwealth establishes a comprehensive regulatory program for uranium mining that is protective of public health and safety and the environment.”

Jack Dunavant, chairman of “We the People’ considers the governor’s announcement a “temporary victory.”

However, he quickly added, “We can’t let our guard down.”

He praised area business leaders who have picked up the mantle to fight to keep the ban saying, “I think it’s been beautiful how various groups have come together such as Virginia Alliance. They have taken a tremendous burden off my shoulders. They bring a different dimension to the fight.”

Dunavant congratulated these leaders on “for a job well done” and gave special credit to Cannon and Lumsden for their efforts in the fight to keep the moratorium.

“We certainly appreciate all that they have done,” he concluded.

The General Assembly’s bill-filing deadline is Friday for this session, and no one had introduced a measure to end the ban as of press time Thursday.

Read a copy of the directive here.