A state legislative commission recommended Monday that Virginia develop a regulatory program for uranium mining, an initial step in a contentious process that could determine whether a company can mine and mill uranium in rural Pittsylvania County.
The Virginia Commission on Coal and Energy voted Monday to support a conceptual plan proposed by state Sen. John Watkins, R-Powhatan, who wants the state to lift its 31-year-old moratorium on uranium mining and establish a regulatory structure for the industry. Watkins will introduce legislation during the General Assembly session that begins Wednesday.
Virginia Uranium Inc. hopes to tap a 119 million-pound deposit - worth an estimated $7 billion - at Coles Hill near Chatham. The company and the project's supporters have touted potential economic benefits and insisted that mining and milling can be done safely.
Opponents from Southside Virginia to Hampton Roads have raised concerns about potential environmental and health risks associated with mining waste and its potential to affect the Roanoke River basin downstream from the Coles Hill site.
Several uranium mining opponents wore bright yellow T-shirts with the slogan "Keep the Ban" at Monday's commission meeting, and some shouted after the panel's vote.
A multi-agency working group appointed by Gov. Bob McDonnell released a report Nov. 30 outlining a regulatory framework for mining and milling that could be put in place if lawmakers lift the ban. After the commission received a briefing on the report, Watkins said he will introduce legislation to codify that framework and effectively limit uranium mining to the Coles Hill site.
The commission voted 11-2, with three abstentions, for Watkins' motion to advance the issue. Eleven of the commission's 13 legislative members are Republicans, and there are seven citizen members on the panel.
Del. Don Merricks, R-Chatham, who represents the Coles Hill area, and Sen. Ralph Smith, R-Roanoke County, were the only commission members who voted against Watkins' motion. Sen. Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach, and Del. Onzlee Ware, D-Roanoke, missed the meeting, and Sen. Charles Colgan, D-Manassas, abstained.
Merricks said he has not been convinced that mining waste, or tailings, can be safely maintained. He also voiced objections to having the commission vote without having a specific bill to consider.
"To be quite frank, I think this - pardon my expression - is a bass-ackward way of doing it," Merricks said. "We should have a bill that's referred to the commission, and then the commission acts on a bill. But here, we're basically voting on a concept. And the concept is not fully developed."
Del. Greg Habeeb, R-Salem, voted for Watkins' motion despite having similar concerns.
"It is a little uncomfortable to be essentially voting on a bill that doesn't exist," Habeeb said. "When I vote yes, my yes is going to be a vote that we ought to continue this conversation legislatively. And once we have a bill, then we'll be able to make a substantive decision as to whether or not the bill provides the protections and the proper regulatory framework we need to have going forward."
Del. Lee Ware, R-Powhatan, who chairs the commission's uranium mining subcommittee, said he supported Watkins' proposal, "believing, as I do, that we can ensure safety and we can provide for the protection of our natural environment if we do these regulations the right way."