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Uranium Working Group report unveiled

The Uranium Working Group, a multi-agency group tasked with studying the possibility or mining uranium in Virginia, on Friday released its 125-page report to Gov. Bob McDonnell.

Although it does not offer recommendations on whether or not to lift the ban on uranium mining, the General Assembly is expected to use the report of what potential regulatory framework would look like if it decides to lift the current moratorium on uranium mining in the state.

The statewide ban on mining uranium has been in place since the early 1980s.

Virginia Uranium Inc. is eager for legislators to lift the 30-year ban so it can begin mining a 119-million pound deposit of ore located on Coles Hill in Pittsylvania County.

In its report, the Uranium Working Group explored environmental and health issues related to uranium mining.

Comprised of staff from the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy, the Virginia Department of Health and he Department of Environmental Quality, the group was tasked with providing the General Assembly information to aid in the legislative decision making process.

The group met weekly from January to November and held six meetings to provide information and answer questions from the public this year.

During the yearlong process group members assessed the risks and benefits of uranium mining and evaluated what would be required in a “conceptual regulatory framework” if mining development were to proceed.

Only after legislation passes the House of Delegates, Senate and is signed by the governor can agencies begin the process of drafting regulations, the report states.

If the ban is lifted, first the state must decide whether to regulate the uranium mill or leave that responsibility to the National Regulatory Commission.

The next step would be to review applications for permits and licenses from the mine owner.

A summary of the group’s report follows:

Public participation

Prior to a license being issued by the commission, the public would have an opportunity to submit written comments and participate in a hearing.

If the ban is lifted, multiple opportunities should be provided for public input, according to the study.

And a local community oversight committee could be established to review and monitor environmental data, and the mining operation could be required to develop a community involvement plan laying out an ongoing process for public involvement.

Uranium mining statue

If the ban is lifted, a comprehensive plan would have to describe the method of mining to be used, equipment used, required facilities and structures and their locations.

Another key component of such a plan would the method to be instituted to mitigate surface water contamination in the event of storm events and mine dewatering as well as requirements for a review of environmental impacts associated with mining.

Air quality monitoring

An evaluation of an air-monitoring network to determine what additions need to be made to provide early warning of offsite impacts would be needed to protect public health.

Air permitting

Regulatory authority would be needed for Virginia to regulate air emissions of radon and radionuclides.

Groundwater monitoring

A groundwater monitoring network would have to be installed and operated by the owner to address protection of groundwater resources in the area of the mining operation. The operation of an offsite monitoring network near uranium mining sites using a combination of private well sampling and the installation of dedicated monitoring wells would be beneficial in achieving prompt warning the institution of timely compensatory measures.

Surface water monitoring

Routine stream monitoring in the watershed where mining is occurring would be used to establish background natural fluxes and ensure compliance with discharge limits and in-stream water quality standards prior to, during and after mining operations.

Water quality standards

Establishment of a Scientific Advisory Committee would be needed to review and make recommendations on groundwater and surface water criteria for radioactivity to ensure standards are protective.

Compliance and enforcement

A strong program is essential to assure compliance with laws and regulations for mining uranium which includes the following key components:

• Coordination of inspections and monitoring functions among all of the agencies;

• Right of entry upon the site to make unannounced inspections;

• Authority to order immediate cessation of activities to prevent or eliminate an imminent danger to the health or safety to employees or the general public; or to prevent significant harm to land, air or water resources;

• Authority to revoke or suspend the permit when a pattern of violation exists or the permittee fails to comply with orders of the state agencies;

• Provisions for appeal of violations through the Administrative Process Act;

• Public access to all inspection, monitoring, and violation records; and,

• Public notification and participation for all hearings resulting from enforcement actions taken against the operator.

Worker, public health monitoring

Initial monitoring of the health of the community is needed to establish a baseline, and subsequent monitoring at periodic intervals to identify changes over time if mining operations are implemented would be an important component of an overall regulatory framework.  Data that could be analyzed as part of such monitoring could include information pertaining to cancer, congenital anomalies, toxic substances-related illnesses, behavioral risk factors, and causes of hospitalizations and deaths.

Environmental lab

The mill operator should have an analytical environmental lab capable of detecting and measuring environmental levels of radionuclides and chemicals associated with uranium mining.

Private water supplies

In order to provide protection for private water supplies, the applicant should sample and analyze private water supplies on a monthly basis within the area defined to be at risk, through groundwater modeling developed during the baseline sampling period.

Environmental monitoring of food sources

Sampling with the consent of the property owner, associated analyses and timely reporting of crops being commercially grown for human and/or livestock foodstuff (including pasture land grasses and tobacco) within a minimum of two miles should be conducted.

Recreational use of water

Water quality standards for swimmable surface water would be needed.  Such standards must exist to protect public health with an adequate margin of safety. The commissioner of health would need the authority to prevent access to waters at summer camps, campgrounds and beaches when levels exceed the developed water quality standards for swimmable surface water. 

Human health regulations

The uranium working group’s report contains a review of adverse health outcomes that could potentially occur among workers and the community.  Lung cancer, other respiratory diseases, and renal toxicity have been cited as adverse health effects in workers among sites that existed before regulations were put into effect.  The report identifies potential pathways for exposures to workers and the community, such as inhalation, ingestion, and dermal (skin) that could lead to exposure. While the risk of exposures and adverse health effects is minimal, the report includes a recommendation that VDH monitor available data pertinent to the health of the community. 

Mine financial assurances

Strong financial assurance is a critical part of any statutory and regulatory framework created for the mining of uranium in order to protect the public from financial obligations for actions or inactions resulting from the operation.  Such a program must take into consideration the complete life cycle of the mining from exploration through reclamation and decommissioning of the mine. 

Key components of a financial assurance statute require 1) a performance or reclamation bond based on third party performance of required reclamation work; 2) liability insurance sufficient to provide coverage for personal and economic injury as well as property and natural resource damage protection; 3) a uranium response fund which is readily accessible to the commonwealth to respond to the release or threatened release of any pollutant or contaminant into the environment from the mining operation; and 4) long-term environmental

monitoring fund or trust which would assure financial resources for monitoring surface water, groundwater and air quality during and after reclamation and decommissioning of the mine. 

Each of these components needs to be funded by the operator and established prior to the commencement of operations.

Permit and License Fees 
Having permit and license fees (initial and annual) covering the full costs of regulating uranium mining and milling in Virginia would ensure that the public does not have to bear such costs. 
Funds from these fees should be held in a dedicated non-general fund account in each agency. 

Governor gets final report

Gov. Bob McDonnell has received and transmitted to the General Assembly the final report of the Uranium Working Group regarding a conceptual regulatory framework should the General Assembly act to lift the current moratorium on uranium mining in the commonwealth.

The working group was not asked to make a recommendation on the overall question of the feasibility of uranium mining in the commonwealth. The report was requested by the General Assembly a year ago.
The governor will now review the report in the weeks ahead.

The working group was not asked for, and has not provided, an ultimate policy recommendation on whether or not the moratorium on uranium mining in the commonwealth should be lifted. 

If the General Assembly decides to lift the moratorium, it will be necessary to amend and adopt statutes and authorize the subsequent development of actual regulations pursuant to the Virginia Administrative Process Act. 

Only after regulations are developed, proposed, adopted and approved after a lengthy public process could an application for a permit to mine uranium in Virginia be developed and submitted for consideration. 

VUI project manager comments on Uranium Working Group Report