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Halifax County IDA donates $5,000 to uranium fight

To give or not to give $5,000 to fight the mining and milling of uranium. That was the question posed to members of the Halifax County Industrial Development Authority Board of Directors on Friday morning.

In the end, six of the seven board members supported the $5,000 one-time Economic Development grant to the Virginia Coalition.

Garland Ricketts was the lone dissenter, but in voting against the motion, he wrote out a personal check for his one-seventh of the $5,000.

Virginia Coalition is a group comprised of business leaders and professionals whose mission is to monitor the debate regarding the proposal to mine and process uranium in Pittsylvania County.

The coalition actively advocates for maintaining the current moratorium on uranium mining until it can be demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt that such mining can be done without harm to the economy, health and environment of communities in Southern Virginia.

In making the motion, Authority Board member W. W. “Ted” Bennett said, “It’s important for the IDA, a group charged with creating jobs and positive economic development for the region, to take a position.”

He pointed out the coalition has hired a lobbying firm that has been quite successful in its efforts to oppose lifting the moratorium on uranium mining “considering the deep pockets” of Virginia Uranium Inc. 

Virginia Uranium is seeking to mine and mill a uranium deposit on Coles Hill in Pittsylvania County, one that would yield an estimated 119 millions pounds of “yellowcake.”

Bennett said one of the lobbyist’s targets is to monitor extensively governments in the Hampton Roads area.

The lobbyist recently reported that in addition to Virginia Beach, other Hampton Roads area jurisdictions are planning to adopt resolutions opposing lifting the ban on uranium mining including Norfolk and Chesapeake and others, Bennett said

“It’s tough to have to spend money to defend yourself in an endeavor to become educated, but it’s much like the due diligence we do with any prospect that comes in. We try to ferret out any pluses or minuses. It’s difficult to see with the conclusions reached by the National Academy of Science and a host of others how it is worth the risk for our region. 

“We feel it is important for this IDA, as community appointed leaders charged with creating jobs and trying to create positive economic development in the region, to take a position and try to help Virginia Coalition who is a significant arm in this fight,” he continued.

The expenses in the fight to keep the ban on uranium mining have been “quite significant,” Bennett told fellow board members urging them to support his motion to donate $5,000.

“We feel it is critical we put our stamp of support on the effort and continue this process of making sure whatever is done is truly in the best interests of our region,” he added.

The authority board, in its resolution, said under the best of circumstances, any economic gains to the community will be short-term, while the long-term costs and liabilities are essentially forever.

In addition, any economic gains from mining uranium are very likely to be offset by economic losses associated with industries or organizations that remove the area from their list of possible sites because of the real or perceived health risks associated with this proposed operation.

There is clearly some heightened risk to public health and the environment associated with uranium mining as compared to, for instance, a department store, or an engineering firm or a medical practice, or a coal mine, the resolution states.

The uranium mining industry has a checkered environmental and public health record.  The products and byproducts of the uranium mining and milling process are undeniable toxic and dangerous to humans.  The question is whether these can be isolated and controlled, with 100 percent certainty they will never reach the communities or populations surrounding the operation.  Simple assurances by parties with a vested economic interest are not sufficient, the resolution continued. 

There is a legitimate issue concerning the actual site of the proposed mine.  If this operation were located in the middle of the Utah desert, there would be little controversy.  Unfortunately, it is located in an area with a far more volatile climate and far denser populations in close proximity.  The concern is heightened by its location at the headwaters of a vital river in a vital watershed that supplies drinking water to millions of people, the resolution states.

Opposing using any authority money to fund efforts of a private organization, Ricketts called the pending action “an inappropriate use of public funds.”

“This type of support should come from the board of supervisors and town councils who are accountable to the voters,” he said.

Ricketts raised the question of conflict of interest, since several authority board members also are members of Virginia Coalition.

“It’s not within in the realm of what the IDA purposes are,” he continued.

However, Ricketts said he was willing to put his money where his mouth is, and he whipped out a personal check for over $700, one-seventh of the $5,000 grant.

(Seven members serve on the authority board.)

Others authority members expressing reservations about the way the issue was presented were Butch Blanks and Wanda Jeffress.

“What I’ve been advocating is transparency in making this donation,” Blanks said, questioning where the $5,000 would come from in the authority budget.

Jeffress expressed support for the coalition’s efforts, but she was adamant in telling fellow board members, “I do not appreciate the way this was done. Just as we were putting up our notebooks at the last meeting, the chair suggested we give this $5,000.”

Referring to Chairman John Cannon, who also serves on the Virginia Coalition, she said, “I appreciate all your efforts, but it should have been done differently.”

Before voting on Bennett’s motion, Ricketts offered a substitute motion requiring the $5,000 grant to be reimbursed by the board of supervisors.

“I don’t think the board of supervisors is going to want to do this. They’ve already given $10,000,” Cannon told Ricketts. “Mining will devastate this area. As the economic development arm of Halifax County, we would be remiss in not doing this.”

Ricketts’ motion died for lack of a second.

When a roll call vote was taken on the original motion to donate $5,000 to the Virginia Coalition, all authority members supported the contribution except Ricketts.