Uranium mining rifts and political monkey-wrenching

Virginia’s protracted tiff over uranium mining has earned a bit of national attention. On Sunday, the New York Times did a broad brush piece on the split between pro- and anti-mining forces, and along the way, captured a few choice nuggets worth considering.

Looming in the background are members of the resident political class, who manage to cover themselves in hypocrisy and dithering:

Opponents include most state lawmakers from the region, all of whom are Republicans. A prominent supporter is the minority leader of the State Senate, Richard L. Saslaw, a Democrat, who lives in the northern suburbs. Asked about buried uranium tailings that remain a risk for hundreds of years, Mr. Saslaw, who is known for unguarded statements, said in a radio interview, “I’m not going to be here.”

We should all remember Mr Saslaw’s comments the next time he bleats about “investing” in this, that or the other government program because of what it will mean to future generations.

Meanwhile, Gov. McDonnell gives Hamlet a run for his money:

Mr. McDonnell, also a Republican, pointedly indicated on Tuesday, when the last research report he requested arrived, that he might not take a position at all. The governor will review the findings “before deciding whether or not to take any recommendation on uranium mining,” said Jeff Caldwell, a spokesman for Mr. McDonnell, who is thought to be considering a run for the presidency in 2016.

Bold leadership, indeed. But The Governor is not alone in his dithering. The men who would succeed him, Ken Cuccinelli and Terry McAuliffe are undecided as well.

Not so the possible third entrant into the gubernatorial sweepstakes, Bill Bolling:

Even if Mr. McDonnell does not weigh in, his lieutenant governor, William T. Bolling, a Republican, may exert an influence; he casts the deciding vote in the event of a tie in the Senate. Thwarted by his party in his quest to become its nominee to replace Mr. McDonnell this year, Mr. Bolling has hinted that he might run as an independent.

He recently said he opposes uranium mining.

Then there are the Republicans in the region, who have found it convenient to rail against That Man in the White House when his administration thwarts offshore gas and oil development, but turn timid when the energy extraction is proposed in their own backyards:

The issue has turned many of the region’s elected Republicans, the party of “drill, baby, drill” and property rights, into mining opponents.

Officials described wrestling with their desire to bring jobs to an area facing high unemployment and whose tobacco and textile industries have collapsed. “It’s been very divisive, very difficult,” said Delegate Donald W. Merricks, who represents Chatham and opposes the mine.

The polite term for this behavior is “NIMBY.” The less polite term cannot be published in a family blog.

And then there are the lobbyists on both sides of the issue. Money has been spent with gusto by pro-and anti-mining interests and more is surely to come.

All of this is well known to those who’ve followed the issue for the last year and more. One additional layer of interest, though, comes from another national source: the liberal Brookings Institution. On its blog, senior fellow Charles Ebinger posted an article that practically screams for mining to begin immediately. One of his more interesting points is on the notion that the Coles Hill site is particularly unsuited for mining due to potential catastrophic flooding:

Critics of uranium mining in Virginia where large reserves are available state that mining this resource in Virginia is “an experiment” since there is no place in Canada or Australia (two large uranium producers) where an active uranium mine is operating in a wet climate that is also subject to an occasional hurricane. Apparently these propagandists are unaware that a large volume of uranium mining in Australia sits in the path of almost yearly typhoons while uranium mines in Gabon sit in the middle of rain forests while those in South Africa lie directly in the path of violent weather in the Indian Ocean littoral. A lot of Canadian uranium production lies in fragile Arctic tundra environments while the prospects for new uranium mining in Greenland and Alaska are hardly in hospitable environments. Uranium mining and prospecting also occurs in other fragile rain forest environments in Brazil.

To be fair, that mining has taken place in these locations without serious consequences is hardly proof against an accident occurring at Coles Hill. An event can occur for which no safeguards are enough — a Black Swan.

The most sensible response to this is not “do nothing.” Rather, it is this, from Sen. John Watkins:

“There is nothing in life that is 100 percent guaranteed,” Mr. Watkins said of the safety concerns of opponents, adding that he respected those concerns. His bill would direct the state to write regulations for mining, including protecting groundwater, a process that could take several years. “We are going to employ the best engineering, the best technology, the best science” to prevent contamination, he said.

Again: even “the best” can fail. But to let a remote possibility dictate policy for generations is Luddism.

Which seems to suit some in Virginia just fine.