Uranium mining in Virginia takes a small step forward

The Coal and Energy Commission voted 11-2 in favor of the creation of regulations for uranium mining in the state. While the vote does not clear the way for mining to begin at the Coles Hill site in Pittsylvania county, it does move the matter forward. A little.

Over the weekend, Del. Lee Ware, who chaired the Commission’s uranium study subcommittee, had a piece in the Richmond Times-Dispatch laying out his support for lifting the state’s decades-long moratorium on uranium mining:

…I will be supporting the legislation offered by Sen. John Watkins —like me, a citizen of Powhatan — because I believe the regulation of uranium mining can be accomplished while ensuring the long-term security of the people of Virginia and also the long-term husbandry of the natural environment of the Southside, and of the entire region, including the water resources upon which the residents of Hampton Roads depend.

If need be, I will offer amendments requiring redundancies of the regulations and procedures necessary to safely contain, in perpetuity, the tailings that will result from the operation.

Without question, it has been the question of safe storage of these tailings that has generated the most concern about — and also opposition to — the Virginia Uranium proposal. On this crucial question, I am persuaded by the remarks to me by an internationally renowned engineer with responsibilities for overseeing both the mining of uranium ore and the storage of tailings:

“It is inconceivable to me that Americans could think that they can’t safely do this.”

The leading spokesman of the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission was similarly convincing.

Ware also reminds us that his committee’s vote doesn’t mean the first shovel of dirt is about to be turned at the proposed Coles Hill mining site. Far from it:

It is important to emphasize that lifting the moratorium would merely inaugurate a long and arduous process whereby regulations would be promulgated to ensure the safe mining, milling and, in future years, the reclamation of the affected land and the perpetual storage of tailings.

This process, to be conducted by agencies of the governor and also of the federal government, would include continual engagement with the public and a response to every public concern. The costs associated with this process would be recouped from the mining operation.

So it’s not a done deal by any means. It is entirely possible — and for now, a safe bet — the General Assembly will refuse to advance Watkins’ legislation opening the way for regulations. Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling has already indicated he is against the measure. In an evenly divided Senate, his opposition could be decisive.