Opinion: Putting the uranium cart before the horse

In 2007, Virginia Uranium LLC (VUI) began lobbying hard for the General Assembly’s standing moratorium on uranium mining and milling to be lifted. The corporation has big plans to start a mining and milling operation in Pittsylvania County, and the Piedmont Environmental Council (PEC) and our allies have fought them every step of the way. There is simply too much at stake. Uranium mining and milling in Virginia would be an extremely dangerous experiment. In the United States, uranium has only been mined in arid regions, where low rainfall makes it more feasible to contain the radioactive and toxic mining waste. Virginia is anything but arid.

With up to 40 inches of rain a year, hurricanes, derechos, tornados, earthquakes and flooding, our water and overall health would be put at serious risk of exposure to toxic sludge. Imagine how difficult it would be to keep radioactive waste contained if we were hit by a tropical storm that deposited over 25 inches of rain in 24 hours, as has happened in Virginia in the past.

For context, this August’s Hurricane Isaac only dropped 9 to 18 inches. Numerous localities in Virginia and North Carolina are concerned about the potential health impacts for citizens. Since VUI stated its intention of mining in Pittsylvania County, almost 40 government entities – representing more than 35 localities in Virginia and North Carolina – have taken action to uphold the moratorium on uranium mining and milling. More than 20 of these localities are in Virginia. And these are purely governmental entities – there are more than 40 additional organizations from both states that have stood up in support of the ban.

When the General Assembly opened session last January, it seemed that all of the hard work of PEC and our allies had paid off. Despite the massive lobbying effort by VUI, head-counters were saying that the company did not have the votes in the General Assembly that they needed to repeal the ban. VUI lacked the political support, particularly after the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) released a study in December confirming that uranium mining and milling in Virginia would expose residents to unprecedented risks. Then, on Jan. 19, Gov. Bob McDonnell wrote a letter to the General Assembly requesting that there be no effort to lift the moratorium on uranium mining and milling this year.

This may sound like great news, but there is important fine print that is cause for serious concern. Yes, the votes weren’t there and yes, McDonnell wrote the letter to call off any legislation regarding uranium mining and milling for 2012. But, in this same letter, McDonnell also announced the creation of his Uranium Working Group (UWG). McDonnell instructed his hand-picked group of state agency representatives to begin drafting “conceptual” laws and regulations for uranium mining. The UWG is not drafting these conceptual laws and regulations alone, however. They’ve hired a new consulting firm with a short track record, and what little record they have is not encouraging.

Some members of the firm have had a vested interest in uranium mining – one of the consultants was previously employed by a uranium mining corporation, and another was a member on a uranium company’s advisory board. This firm’s bias shows: from PEC’s reading, they haven’t found a mine they didn’t approve of. To make matters worse, these rules are being written behind closed doors with little to no public involvement. We suspect that they will be brought to the General Assembly in 2013 – a neatly wrapped package that could push our legislators toward lifting the ban. PEC is concerned that the UWG’s process shows a disregard for political transparency, public input, the multiple reports highlighting the risks involved and the legislative process.

In Virginia, legislators create laws and then relevant state agencies come up with the regulations to implement those laws; laws precede regulations. The UWG turns this system on its head. Uranium mining and milling is currently illegal in the Commonwealth, and yet this group is currently drafting regulations. Virginia delegate Kenneth Plum, of the 36th district, recently commented on this flawed process in a blog post:

“Gov. Bob McDonnell appointed a task force to write regulations that would need to be met if the ban was lifted. That group . . . has been strongly criticized for the lack of transparency in its work. There is a great likelihood that the regulations that are developed will be used as a justification for lifting the ban. There are well-funded industry lobbyists at work actively looking for ways to get around the ban . . . The threat to human health outweighs any arguments for lifting the ban.”

Drafting laws is the job of Virginia’s legislators, not that of a working group that was hand-picked by the governor. Furthermore, laws are meant to be drafted in the public sphere of the General Assembly, not behind closed doors.

Gov. McDonnell has said that public safety trumps economic development when it comes to uranium mining, and we want to take him at his word. Yet, we are concerned that his working group has put the cart before the horse – drafting regulations before the legislature has taken any action; hiring a company that appears to be stacked with proponents of mining and milling; and giving little to no credible opportunities for the public to weigh in.

PEC has been studying this issue since it first came up in the 1980’s, and the facts that supported the ban then have not changed. No study has definitively said that mining and milling can be done safely in this region – and we don’t expect that one will. Uranium mining and milling in Virginia would be an unprecedented experiment that would put the air, water and lands of the Commonwealth at risk for the benefit of a few investors. PEC staff will be working hard to keep you updated as this issue develops. In the meantime, tell the Governor and your legislators that this is not a gamble that the Commonwealth should take.

No drafts, no more studies of studies. Keep the ban in place.

Katherine Vance is an editor and multimedia producer for the PEC.

About Staff/Contributed 5503 Articles
The Rappahannock News welcomes contributions from any and all members of the community. Email news and photos to editor@rappnews.com or call us at 540-675-3338.