End Run: Supporters of Uranium Mining in Virginia Push Bill to Effectively Lift the Ban Without an Up or Down Vote

Chatham, Virginia

The company that wants to mine uranium in Virginia is supporting a bill in the upcoming General Assembly calling for regulations to govern the proposed mining, according to lobbyists for Virginia Uranium. The move is widely seen by environmentalists and others as a way to authorize the mining while avoiding an up or down vote on the controversial project.

If approved, it would be the first full-scale uranium mining project east of the Mississippi. Mining in the U.S. has traditionally taken place in arid areas of the West, and opponents of the mine say south central Virginia’s relatively wet climate and susceptibility to hurricanes, storms and even earthquakes increases the health and safety risks of uranium mining in the state.

The Coles Hill deposit in Pittsylvania County has 119 million pounds of uranium and is the largest known deposit in the U.S. and one of the largest in the world. Virginia Uranium, Inc. estimates its worth at as much as $10 billion.

Legislators placed a moratorium on uranium mining in the early 1980s after the now-defunct Canadian firm, Marline Uranium Corp., lobbied for permission to mine the Coles Hill deposit. Marline dropped its request after the market for uranium tanked in the mid 1980s. The moratorium still stands and the law states that it will not be lifted “until a program for permitting uranium mining is established by statute.”

Whitt Clement

Whitt Clement, head of the state government relations team at Hunton & Williams and one of 19 lobbyists employed by Virginia Uranium, told a closed-door meeting of Virginia business leaders in Williamsburg last month that the company is working on legislation that would authorize state agencies to draft regulations to govern mining rather than voting directly on the project, two of the businessmen present say.

Robert Burnley

“It’s a de facto lifting of the ban,” Robert Burnley,  president of Strategic Environmental Advice in Richmond, a consulting firm working with mine opponents, and former director of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, says. “Once the regulations are in place, the mining can commence.”

Ben Davenport, owner of First Piedmont Corp., a waste removal company in Chatham, Virginia, also attended the meeting of the board of directors of the state’s Chamber of Commerce. Chatham, surrounded by bucolic farmland and rolling hills and streams, is about six miles from the Coles Hill site.

“I would think they see that as a way to get the ban lifted” without having to win on a direct vote, Davenport, a member of the pro-business Alliance for Progress in Southern Virginia, said. “Apparently, they don’t think they can do that.”

Julie Rautio

Neither Clement nor Virginia Uranium returned calls requesting an interview.  Julie Rautio, also a lobbyist for the company, says there is no hidden agenda in the company’s plan to lobby for a bill authorizing state agencies to draft regulations. Rautio says supporters of the bill will make it clear that by authorizing regulations legislators will be lifting the moratorium. At the same time, Rautio says the bill does not guarantee approval of the mine.

“It doesn’t actually mean mining will ever happen,” Rautio says. “It just means that a company could apply for a permit. [The requirements] could be so stringent that no company could ever meet them.”

Rautio says even if the legislature approves the bill, it will be another five to eight years before uranium mining could begin because of the state and federal regulatory hurdles. But opponents of the mine note that Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican, has said he favors the mine if it can be proved safe and argue that his administration is likely to move swiftly to get regulations in place.

Virginia state Sen. John Edwards (D-Roanoke)

Virginia state Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, who opposes the mine, says the vote on regulations is an attempt to shift the focus away from a more difficult debate.

“I can see how those who want to promote the uranium mine would rather argue over the details of regulation than the bigger question of can you do it safely and protect public health and safety, the question of should we do it at all,” Edwards says. “They want to shift the debate. They’re smart. The question becomes not whether but how.”

Edwards serves on the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee, one of two likely panels to handle the bill. Depending on how it is drafted, the bill could go to commerce and labor or the Senate Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources Committee. There are similar committees in the House of Delegates.

Environmental groups tracking the debate say it is impossible to predict which way the vote will go because so many legislators have yet to take a stand. The National Academy of Sciences released a study last December that took many in Richmond by surprise. It had been widely anticipated that the study would provide findings supportive of lifting the ban. But, while the study did not directly review the proposed site, it said the state would have to overcome “steep hurdles” before the ban could be safely lifted. McDonnell asked legislators to delay a vote until this year and appointed his own study panel. The Uranium Working Group, made up of officials at the state departments of health, environmental quality, and mines, minerals and energy, is expected to present its findings to the governor on Dec. 1.

If Virginia Uranium wins approval, it would operate a mine and milling plant on the Coles Hill site. After uranium is mined, the ore is taken to a mill where the stone is crushed to free up the uranium oxide or “yellow cake.” The waste materials, radioactive sand-like “tailings,” are mixed with water and chemicals, creating toxic slurry.

Tailings remain radioactive for thousands of years and have poisoned livestock, contaminated waterways and destroyed farms and pastures out West. Chemicals in the tailings have been linked to cancer in government studies. Virginia Uranium says it plans to place some of the tailings in underground holding compartments and some back in the mine.

Opponents say they fear the tailings will leach into groundwater or run off into surface rivers and streams.

But Virginia Uranium spokesman Patrick Wales has said the holding compartments will be state-of-the-art, lined with rock, clay and tough synthetic strong enough to prevent leaching. Although the company is almost half owned by Canadian firms, Virginia Uranium President Walter Coles says residents should be assured the land will be cared for because his family’s historic home, where he and his wife, Alice, live, is directly atop the uranium deposit.

Company executives say the mine would provide 324 jobs and pour $140 million a year into the local economy, which has been hard hit by the demise of the tobacco, textile and furniture industries.

However, Ben Davenport of the Alliance for Progress in Southern Virginia says just the possibility of a uranium mine has hurt the local economy, making it tougher to sell property near the proposed mine or attract newcomers to the area.

“We feel like a uranium mine would be a detriment to our economy,” Davenport said. “There’s a stigma and a perception that hurts our ability to attract businesses to locate here and people to move here.”

Rose Ellen O'Connor

Rose Ellen O'Connor

Rose Ellen O'Connor is an award-winning investigative journalist whose work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, NBC News, People magazine and The Oregonian.

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  • Lavinia Edmunds

    The failure of Virginia Uranium to get public approval has led to this undercover, surreptitious approach. It’s hard to believe the company is openly admitting that it plans to circumvent the vote. But is is also clear that the majority of Virginians oppose the location of mining, with its highly toxic, radioactive waste, in areas of population and natural resources. Great job of reporting!

    • http://twitter.com/Atomicrod Rod Adams

      Count me as one of the Virginians who strongly favors the safe extraction of uranium. It is far safer and better for the environment than the 150 or so coal mines that are already operating in my home state.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jim.lacks.7 Jim Lacks

    Julie Rautio says there is no hidden agenda. I do agree with her on that point.They aren’t hiding it. It right out there in the open they think we’re stupid. Don’t let the fox in the henhouse then let him request to steal your chickens

  • http://www.facebook.com/marushka.france Marushka France

    ECRR = European Committee on Radiation Risk
    Dr. Chris Busby, Scientific Secretary wrote Introduction.
    book, 2006, was co-edited with Dr. Alexey Yablokov
    “ECRR Chernobyl: 20 Years On”
    the book!! http://life-upgrade.com/DATA/chernobylebook.pdf
    Spanish http://ciaramc.org/ciar/boletines/cr_bol226.htm
    http://www.euradcom.org/publications/chernobylbook2009.htm
    >> http://www.euradcom.org/2010/uraniumreport.htm << especially leukemia

    deadly, no safety, forever, a legacy of death and genetic disease.

  • http://www.facebook.com/karen.b.maute Karen Brewer Maute

    Coles, Clement and Wales appear to be snake oil
    salesmen, hawking for the Canadians who wish to mine in water-rich, historic and
    populated Virginia. Unfortunately, as he saying goes, “there’s a sucker born
    every minute”. Let’s pray that the suckers are a minority in Virginia’s General
    Assembly.

  • B.L. Steinhagen

    Too Many Questions & Not Enough Answers?

    Virginia Uranium may have shot itself in the foot by changing focus away from environmental safety/health issues of uranium mining as it is highly unlikely that you can separate the two.

    The history of uranium mining “best practices” is not on the side of Virginia Uranium as the safety/health record of uranium mining over the past 50 years has been one disaster after another. Uranium mining safety will always be a monumental concern if it is mined in an area that has ANY potential risk to a large population. Coles Hill site has the potential to effect millions of people should accidental contamination reach Lake Gaston.

    It will be interesting to see if the Virginia uranium working group will include citizen
    comments/concerns in it’s final report or be totally ignored. If the citizen’s comments are ignored then what was the purpose of allowing the hundreds of comments and questions that were presented by the public at these meetings? Maybe it was to give the appearance of public involvement. Note that the National Academy of Sciences report released in March of this year said that the citizens should be part of the process and should have “meaningful public involvement”. Is someone in the Virginian government attempting to influence lifting the uranium mining ban? How can public comment/concerns be meaningful if they are ignored?

    Virginia would not allow a munitions, explosive or chemical plant to be built in a populated areas. Zoning laws creates areas where these industries can be built to protect its citizens from accidents. It could be catastrophic if a munitions plant were built next to a elementary school, hence common sense rules and these types of
    industries are not allowed to build next to schools. We all know that accidents can happen in spite regular inspections or regulations. Virginia Uranium seems to forgotten that humans are not perfect and acts of god can’t be predicted or guaranteed against. Coles Hill is like the munitions plant being next to the elementary school or like BP oil rig in the gulf which had a catastrophic failure which the clean up costs are in the billions of dollars. Coles Hill is too close to the water supply of over a million and half Virginians. Common sense should prevail just like the munitions plant and schools, Coles Hill should not be allow to mine uranium. The location should dictate that. It makes no difference how much the economy needs a thriving business in the Coles Hill area. Private citizens, families, farmers, businesses depend on clean water from the Norfolk, Virginia Beach, Chesapeake, Portsmouth, Suffolk acquire all or a portion of their water from Lake Gaston. It could take years to clean up the water should an accident occur, especially with underground tailings. Private citizens, families, farmers, businesses depend on clean water from Norfolk, Virginia Beach, Chesapeake, Portsmouth, Suffolk acquire all or a portion of their water from the Lake Gaston lake.

    The potential for a radiological contamination of the water supply can not be guaranteed.

    It may seem like Virginia Uranium is doing and “End Run” It could turn out to be “a dead end” if each concern citizen contacts lets their legislators know that uranium mining is not worth the risk in Virginia. “Best Practice Regulations” could become “Worst Nightmare” reality if the ban is lifted.

  • B.L. Steinhagen

    Too Many Questions & Not Enough Answers?

    Virginia Uranium may have shot itself in the foot by changing focus away from environmental safety/health issues of uranium mining as it is highly unlikely that you can separate the two.

    The history of uranium mining “best practices” is not on the side of Virginia Uranium as the safety/health record of uranium mining over the past 50 years has been one disaster after another. Uranium mining safety will always be a monumental concern if it is mined in an area that has ANY potential risk to a large population. Focusing on “best practices” mining regulations is a smokescreen in an attempt to cover real safety/health concerns which has proven difficult or impossible for Virginia Uranium to defend. Uranium mining regulations would be written to a “best practices” industry standard. These regulations would be a “regulatory experiment” as no other uranium mine in the world has the potential safety concerns because of it’s geographic location which includes excessive weather systems, hurricanes, nor’easters, potential torrential rainfall and earthquakes. If Virginia lifts the uranium ban or passes a bill that allows for “best practices” regulations to be written, it would be a big costly mistake. The standard “best practices” is constantly changing as more is known but in reality the long term uranium or radon exposure and health effects on those that work in the mines, live near them mines has shown increased health issues.

    Uranium mining “best practices” regulatory history as it relates to its’ industry safety/health is terrible.

    Other uranium mining sites using it’s “best practices” have many past and ongoing issues:

    Current study costing taxpayers millions of dollars which will design and conduct epidemiological studies of health conditions among Navajo children potentially associated with environmental exposures to uranium released from past mining and milling operations on the Navajo Nation. Results not due until 2015

    At a Uranium Contamination Stakeholder Workshop held in Farmington, NM on 8-10
    Nov 2012, uranium health issues were discussed and summarized by Paul A. Charp,
    Ph.D. Senior Health Physicist.

    A presentation included uranium exposure information on Health Effect Differences between Children and Adults. His presentation concerning exposures is very frightening:

    “It is not known whether exposure to uranium affects children differently. Very young animals absorb more uranium than adults do when fed uranium, but do not know if this happens in children.”

    “Not known whether exposure to naturally occurring uranium can affect the
    developing human fetus.”

    High rates of systemic lupus erythematosus is a long-term autoimmune disorder that may affect the skin, joints, kidneys, brain, and other organs have been linked to living in proximity to a former uranium ore processing facility in Fernald, Ohio, according to new research findings presented this week at the American College of Rheumatology Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C.
    (American College of Rheumatology Nov. 7, 2012)

    These uranium mines have been closed over 30 years…yet there many questions that still need answers to health related issues that mysteriously
    are present around closed uranium mines today?

    Virginia’s legislators wouldn’t let that happen to its citizens, Right?

    Does casual or long term exposure to Uranium mining by products cause medical issues?

    Will Virginia write a regulation that will cover the unknown health issues?

    Do you really think…

    Virginia or US regulatory agencies will protect:

    Uranium miners? “Best practices” has not to this point, Increased
    related health issues and death rates are the norm for career uranium miners.

    Miner’s family, especially children and pregnant spouses? “Best Practices” will not address this as there have been no studies. Some suggest that increase birth issues have been prevalent in uranium miners families.

    Who pays for their health costs 20 or 30 years down the road?

    Natural resources within the contamination zone 100% of the time?
    To date they would get a grade of “D-” based on history. Arizona, Colorado, France, Idaho, Canada all have had health and/or water issues that are on going.

    Abandonment of uranium mines when company leaves or goes broke.
    Who pays for uranium mining cleanup when the bond money has been depleted?
    Taxpayers? How do we regulate abandonment of uranium mines? How do we regulate
    expedient clean up of abandon uranium mines? Many uranium mines from the 1950s
    through the 1980s are just now being clean up? Many out west are still a toxic
    dump waiting to be cleaned up.

    The Governor appointed a uranium working group to provide a scientific policy analysis to help assess whether the moratorium on uranium mining in the Commonwealth should be lifted. That process is to conclude with a final report due soon. (December) The working group has met with the public on 4 occasions over the past year and had several “open forums” for the public to voice comments or concerns.

    It will be interesting to see if the Virginia uranium working group will include citizen comments/concerns in it’s final report or be totally ignored. If they are ignored then what was the purpose of allowing the hundreds of comments and questions that were presented by the public at these meetings? Maybe it was to give the appearance
    of public involvement. Note that the National Academy of Sciences report released in March of this year said that the citizens should be part of the process and should have “meaningful public involvement”.

    Is someone in the Virginian government attempting to influence lifting the uranium mining ban?

    How can public comment/concerns be meaningful if they are ignored?

    Virginia would not allow a munitions, explosive or chemical plant to be built in populated areas. Zoning creates areas where these industries can be built to protect its citizens from accidents. It could be catastrophic if a munitions plant were built next to a elementary school. We all know that accidents can happen in spite regular inspections or regulations are in place. Virginia Uranium seems to forgotten that humans are not perfect and acts of god can’t be predicted or guaranteed against. Coles Hill is like the munitions plant being next to the elementary school. Coles Hill is too close to the water supply for over a million and half Virginians. Private citizens, families, farmers, small businesses and hundreds of communities in central Virginia and North Carolina depend on clean water from Lake Gaston. Norfolk, Virginia Beach, Chesapeake, Portsmouth, Suffolk acquire all or a portion of their water from Lake Gaston. It could take years to clean up the water should an accident occur. The potential for a radiological contamination of the water supply can not be guaranteed.

    Does it make any sense to mine uranium near the water supply that millions of people depend on?

    It may seem like Virginia Uranium is doing and “End Run” It could turn out to be “a dead end” if each concern citizen contacts their legislators Tell them uranium mining is not worth the risk in Virginia. “Best Practice Regulations” could become “Worst Nightmare” reality if the ban is lifted.

    See Virginia Beach,
    Va concern about its water from link below.

    http://www.wavy.com/dpp/news/local_news/va_beach/wavy-the-impact-of-uranium-mining-on-your-water

  • B.L. Steinhagen

    Uranium mining is like the “ugly duckling” in the Nuclear energy process. Nuclear power plants really have done a good job. I have no issues there. The past and present safety issues of uranium mining is real and potentially a dangerous concern. Clean water issues top the list of problems. Very few industries anywhere could survive with the track recorded that uranium mining has had. I am not an environmentalist. We need to use all available energy sources. Lifting the ban in Virginia could/would be a mistake waiting to happen? The majority of uranium mines in the US and Canada has experienced either regulatory violations, safety violations, or a varying degree radiation by by products released into the environment. Coles Hill location risk (no matter how small) is to the water supply of well over a million people. No one can guarantee that Coles Hill would be accident free. Those that make those claims have financial interests somehow tied to uranium mining. To make a groundless guarantee is futile when acts of god such as hurricanes, earthquakes, nor’easters can’t be stopped or predicted. Uranium mining should only be allowed in remote areas of the US. Not sure where that would be, but it’s definitely not in Virginia.

  • Kay Patrick

    I am very troubled that this project could be determined by lobbyists and deal brokers. According to one of the lead investors, it’s going to happen. They are assured what ever the will of the people may say, this mining will go forth. Democracy be damned.

    As Pennsylvania is now dealing with the toxic and political fallout from sneaking their fracking buddies in, so will go Virginia. We will be inheriting a toxic legacy with no possible remedy, playing whack-a-mole chasing a company with so many Canadian registries and names it will be near impossible to find a responsible party. VUI, Sprott, VA Resources, Holdco, Anthem…whatever they are calling themselves this week, aim to put up a pittance to claim a fortune. Where to send the bill should best practices fail?

    They are counting on an uninformed populace to be bought with shiny trinkets and assurances of great jobs. Let us look at a similar scenario a few years ago in Finland. The Tavivaara Sotkamo folks overcame skepticism and initiated a similar project in 2008 using best practices for mining and milling. Pretty much immediately, there was a foul stench of rotten eggs suffusing the community. A worker dies in a toxic stench as chemicals mix in an industrial accident, a leak here, a leak there…till all hell busts loose and mega gallons of uranium and nickel laden water flood local streams, elevating uranium levels 80%.

    This is happening right now, NOW. They believe after a couple of weeks, the main containment area may be fixed, but the other containment is still leaking. Natural events, human error, who cares? The reality is an unsolvable release of uranium into the area waterways. Money? Yes, the company is bleeding money as production stops. Money for cleanup, What? How will this cleanup be effected?

    Here is the punchline: the same thing is about to happen here. Knowing better, sheer political will and corporate insistence are determined to make this thing happen. How long till the “Safest Uranium Mine in the World” is spewing toxic leachate and radionuclides and heavy metals into the Banister and Roanoke River? Who knows? It would be a political embarrassment to fail to deliver after so much money has been paid out. I just hope the Commonwealth keeps records of the principal players so we can find these beneficiaries when the indictments for public endangerment are handed down.