Virginia Uranium Legislation Fails, But Fight Not Over

  • February 01, 2013
  • By Jim Malewitz

An effort in the Virginia legislature to lift the state's 31-year-old moratorium on uranium mining has failed, dealing a blow to supporters of a plan to tap the country's largest known uranium deposit. But the debate is far from over.

Senator John Watkins Thursday (January 31), withdrew legislation that would have allowed the state to write regulations for mining and milling uranium — the Republican's attempt to clear the way for the development of a 119-million-pound deposit in rural Southside Virginia large enough to power every U.S. nuclear reactor for more than two years.

Supporters say the development, which would be the only mine east of the Mississippi River, would add high-paying jobs to the economically distressed region long dependent on tobacco and textiles. Opponents argue the environmental and health risks are too great, particularly in a state that has no experience regulating mining, and where a moist climate with frequent storms would complicate efforts to keep radioactive waste from the process out of local water supplies.   

Watkins, who spiked the bill after realizing he lacked support in committee, said it was “frustrating,” he could not convince lawmakers that mining would be safe, following two years of close study.

“There is a lack understanding regarding the world marketplace,” he said in an emotional four-page statement. “The failure to lift this ban is a definite stigma and blot on our reputation as a pro-business, pro-energy, pro-property rights state.”

Critics of the proposal, including health and environmental advocates, as well as farmers and some business groups, cheered Watkins' move, expressing relief.

“The long-term risks are real,” said Cale Jaffe, director of Charlottesville office of the Southern Environmental Law Center. “Today's action sends a clear message that legislators have heard us.”

But those on both sides of the issue acknowledge the debate will continue in the coming years. Virginia Uranium, the company that has spent millions of dollars in its effort to develop the site, has said it has no plans to give in.

“We're going to be vigilant,” Andrew Lester, executive director of the anti-mining Roanoke River Basin Association, told Stateline.

In fact, more wrangling could be on tap this year, though outside of the legislature. Watkins has asked Governor Bob McDonnell to allow agencies to construct draft regulations ahead of the next vote on the moratorium — an effort to answer critics' questions and to speed up a years-long development process.

Watkins says the moratorium's wording leaves open the possibility. Governor Bob McDonnell, who has not stated his position on the moratorium, told the Associated Press he is reviewing the request.