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RICHMOND, Va.--A forum on uranium mining Thursday addressed the thicket of regulatory, environmental and economic issues Virginia will need to address in 2013 and beyond if it ends a 30-year ban on the practice.
Four panelists who are among the leading voices on uranium mining participated in the discussion at AP Day at the Capitol, an annual program that examines key legislation and policy to be taken up by the General Assembly and political leaders in the year ahead.
The panel included Cale Jaffe of the Southern Environmental Law Center; Paul Locke, who led a National Academy of Sciences study of uranium mining; Delegate Donald Merricks, a Republican whose Southside Virginia district includes one of the largest known uranium deposits in the world; and Patrick Wales, project manager for Virginia Uranium Inc., the company that wants to end the 1982 moratorium and mine the 119-million-pound deposit in Pittsylvania County.
Wales made it clear the company is committed to mining the radioactive ore, even if it suffers a setback in 2013 in Richmond. Sen. John Watkins, R-Powhatan, announced this week he would have legislation drafted to end the ban and establish regulatory controls for the industry. Its prospects in the legislature are not known.
"We've got a $7 billion project," Wales told the gathering of journalists at the Statehouse. "We've got one of the best projects in the world, and do you really think we're going to give up and walk away? This issue is not going away."
Jaffe, a senior staff attorney at the SELC, and Merricks said they aren't convinced uranium can be mined and milled safely. They and other opponents fear radioactive waste might be scattered in a devastating storm or a torrential rain, fouling public drinking supplies and farm fields.
"We see the risks as significantly outweighing the potential benefits," Jaffe said. "We're looking at an extraordinarily high-stakes gamble, and it's not a gamble the state of Virginia should take."
Merricks said a report issued last week by the state's Uranium Working Group provided the framework for regulations that would need to be in place for the mining to occur, but he said it didn't address all his concerns.
"I'm convinced in my mind that even if you had the best management practices, it doesn't eliminate the risks involved with the mining and the milling," Merricks said.
Milling involves the separation of rock and uranium. Waste rock laced with uranium, called tailings, ultimately must be stored for generations.
Virginia Uranium has pledged to store the waste in secure below-ground containment units to minimize risk.