Senate rethinks uranium exploration guidelines

By Eric Luther
Capital News Service

RICHMOND — A bill was tabled this past week that would have required uranium exploration permit holders to reimburse the State Health Department for providing water supply analyses to residents near Southside drilling activities.

Proposed by Sen. Frank Ruff Jr., R-Mecklenburg, Senate Bill 547 mandated permit holders sample and submit an analysis of private wells within 750 feet of exploration activity to the Virginia Department of Health every six months to inspect water quality.

The bill, which is being carried over until next year’s General Assembly session, required an easy-to-understand explanation of the test results. The legislation also necessitated a final sample be taken six months after each exploratory hole is plugged.

According to a press release, Ruff chose to postpone his bill after speaking with several stakeholders and Pittsylvania residents who experienced problems with their wells after exploratory drilling occurred. Because necessary state reports given to families were technical in nature, Ruff said they did not understand the full health risks they faced.

“My goal is to get somebody at the health department to take that report and translate it into something people can understand,” Ruff said. “We hope we can have a more comprehensive way of looking at it.”

Ruff said the bill in no way suggested future mining activity take place in the commonwealth. “There was a bill last year to lift the moratorium,” Ruff said. “It was withdrawn at the last minute because there was no support for it.”

Co-patron Sen. William Stanley Jr., R-Moneta, said water quality is a concern of everyone in Southside Virginia. “Whenever drilling occurs there seems to be an alteration to the quality of water,” said Stanley, denoting an increase of lead in some surrounding wells. “Not only are we requiring a testing of that water . . . but also a disclosure of any changes in the water quality to the homeowner.”

Stanley said SB 547 — as it was introduced — was intended to safeguard the health of Virginians from any adverse effects drilling for core samples might create. “What we’re trying to do is protect the water of our people,” Stanley said. “It is one of our greatest natural resources.”

According to Stanley, Southside Virginia is home to some of the best watersheds in the country.

Jack Dunavant, president of Dunavant Engineering and Construction in Halifax County, has opposed uranium mining in Virginia for more than 30 years. He said SB 547 may have looked good on paper, but ultimately was not.

“I don’t know how you could craft it so a lot of these people would understand it,” Dunavant said. “I don’t know how to alert people other than to tell them [the level of contaminants] exceed certain acceptable limits.”

The engineer added SB 547 was a step in the right direction, but the legislation needs to impose further regulations on any company wishing to begin exploratory drilling. “It’s an OK bill,” Dunavant said. “But [permit holders] should be required to notify any adjacent land owner and anyone who has a well within 1,000 feet of the property line where they’re drilling.”

Dunavant said the overwhelming majority of Southside residents oppose any sort of mining in the area.

“I cannot see the state ever allowing mining to happen because of the long-term detriment,” Dunavant said. “The bottom line is it’s not a question of if . . . but when and by what means.”

Dunavant said if companies could mine without leaving behind tailings, no one would have a problem extracting uranium.  However, the technology simply does not exist. “Most people don’t have the expertise to understand it,” Dunavant said. “This stuff is insidious. We have to be smarter about what we do.”

Stanley said SB 547, as it was introduced, was a good consumer protection bill. “Any mining — if it ever occurred — would have to be not only safe but not affect our livestock and our people,” Stanley said. “I would think water quality comes before profits. People come before profits.”

Capital News Service is a student news-gathering program sponsored by the School of Mass Communications at Virginia Commonwealth University.

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