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COMMUNITY VOICE: Uranium Policy: Why insist on transparency?

The Uranium Working Group’s work plan presented at a March 7 meeting of the Uranium Mining Subcommittee drew instant, sharp criticism for its lack of transparency, which was deemed particularly reprehensible in light of the report by the National Academy of Sciences, which told us that international best practices are “founded on principles of openness, transparency and public involvement in oversight and decision-making.” 

 

In response to the criticism, Martin Kent, Gov. Bob McDonnell’s chief of staff, sent out a letter to correct “errant reports.”

Valid concerns remain. Some were addressed in Kent’s letter; some were not. Here are some points from his letter and concerns that persist:

• The letter assures us that neither the Uranium Working Group nor the governor can lift the moratorium. Why worry that the public won’t have a say?

The Uranium Working Group will draft a statutory proposal that, if approved by the General Assembly, would end the ban on uranium mining. It might take years to write detailed regulations, but the moratorium would be over.

• The letter makes clear that we can write to the working group and comment in meetings. Isn’t that sufficient public participation?

This would seem to fall short of the NAS report’s recommendation that, “Meaningful and timely public participation should occur throughout the life cycle of a project, beginning at the earliest stages of project planning.” For example, there appears to be no opportunity to interact with the Uranium Working Group and no opportunity to ask a direct question and receive a direct answer from state agency experts or the independent experts they retain.

• The letter does not correct a common misunderstanding that the Uranium Working Group will conduct site-specific studies.

The governor’s Jan. 19 press release stated that the group will do “a comprehensive and on-site study of the issue” and led many people to expect them to define the impacts and risks at Coles Hill. However, nothing in the group’s actual assignment or work plan indicates that it will either do a site-specific analysis or produce the kind of assessment of risks and impacts that would provide guidance on the decision of whether or not to proceed.

Virginia has no experience with current best practices for storing mineral processing tailings, making it essential to evaluate any proposed site thoroughly. Coles Hill combines characteristics found at sites in other countries, but no one site is sufficiently comparable that we can simply look to that site to know what to expect at Coles Hill. Geologists, hydrologists, geochemists, environmental scientists, climatologists, engineers and risk analysts would have to rely on complex modeling to predict the impacts of new practices interacting with climate and site conditions. In January 2013 scientists will not know what could happen at Coles Hill; nor will lawmakers voting on whether to accept the risks of ending the ban.

• According to the letter, the group will tell us whether public safety can be ensured. Isn’t that what everyone wants to know?

It doesn’t appear that the group’s work will address this issue in sufficiently realistic terms. For example:

(1) It is possible on paper to write regulations that describe how uranium mining could be done with an acceptable level of risk. But, regulations will not tell us all the things that could happen in practice if human beings undertake uranium mining, milling and tailings storage in Virginia. Regulations will not tell us whether uranium can be mined safely at Coles Hill or any other location.

(2) The experts on tap do not appear to include economists. There is nothing to indicate that the working group will do more than summarize the Chmura and RTI International socioeconomic study reports, which focus on scenarios that assume 35 years of profitable mining and milling at Coles Hill, full regulatory compliance and no new uranium discoveries. Neither study fully acknowledges either end of the realistic range of future uranium prices — neither prices below the break-even point at Coles Hill that would result in no economic benefit, nor prices high enough to stimulate exploration and mining elsewhere in the commonwealth.

• The letter states that the governor established the Uranium Working Group “at the request of many legislators.” More interesting is what it doesn’t say.

Among the legislators who contacted Gov. McDonnell were seven members of the Uranium Mining Subcommittee who also advised the governor that: “While we do not prejudge the agencies’ substantive work, we do suggest that the draft regulations and any ensuing adjustment to the statutory moratorium relate specifically to the uranium deposit at Coles Hill.” This possibility raises a couple of immediate concerns:

(1) No scientific or economic rationale dictates limiting the law, the risk or the profit to one project. Science, economics and the Virginia Constitution — not to mention basic fairness — would seem to require that regulations and statutes apply statewide. While there is no indication that the Uranium Working Group intends to draft a regulatory framework customized for Coles Hill, the intentions of legislators and the governor are not clear.

(2) The NAS report characterizes the Coles Hill deposits more precisely than the subcommittee letter, “Of the localities in Virginia where existing exploration data indicates that there are significant uranium occurrences, predominantly in the Blue Ridge and Piedmont geological terrains, only the deposits at Coles Hill in Pittsylvania County appear to be potentially economically viable at present.” The economic viability of a uranium site can change quickly. In 2002, there were no deposits of economic interest in Virginia. When the price spiked in 2007, Virginia Uranium Inc. spokesmen proposed paying taxes on potential extraction not just to Pittsylvania County, but to Halifax and Henry counties, as well, implying their interest in mining uranium throughout the area. Company executives and consultants have touted the likelihood of extensive uranium development in Virginia.

Greater transparency is possible and appropriate.

Even so, government officials are not likely to volunteer all the information we want or frame it in a way that’s clear. We need to ask for answers to our questions and full transparency regarding our concerns.

Whitehead is a native and resident of Pittsylvania County.