Virginia's 30-year-old moratorium on uranium mining and milling appears likely to grow a year older, following the withdrawal of a bill by Sen. John Watkins last week.
Watkins' SB 1353 was withdrawn in committee after apparently failing to garner the support needed to pass a vote and continue on to the full senate. Despite the positive outcome for the anti-uranium crowd, with both sides clamoring for another clash in future sessions, the result appears to be more of a stalemate than a victory.
Watkins' failed bill was mirrored by another in the house of delegates, with both proposing a regulatory framework by which the state would control the mining and milling of uranium in a single 119 million pound deposit in Pittsylvania County. The house bill, sponsored by Del. Jackson Miller, has received a lukewarm welcome by the House Commerce and Labor Committee, and has so far failed to find itself on a session day's agenda. The withdrawal of Watkins' senate bill from the Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources Committee comes after the senator's perceived opposition from his colleagues.
"It is very frustrating to me that I have been unable to convince some of my colleagues that this effort can be accomplished safely and economically here in Virginia," said Watkins in a statement. "It is frustrating as well that there is a lack of understanding regarding the world marketplace and the availability of uranium for use as nuclear fuel. Undeniably, nuclear power production is the cleanest system that we have developed to date that is capable of producing energy at a scale that not only is needed in Virginia but certainly across our nation."
The Coles Hill deposit in Pittsylvania County has an estimated worth of $7 billion, which Watkins says makes it one of the most valuable collections of uranium ore in the world. In the regulatory proposals set out by the two bills, mining and milling of uranium, as well as the oversight of its effects on the environment would be handled collectively by the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy, the Department of Environmental Quality and the Department of Health.
An impact statement prepared by the Department of Planning and Budget estimated the year one impact of the regulations to be an increased cost of more than $4 million due to the hiring of additional staff and the costs of inspections.
Two weeks ago, District 30 Del. Ed Scott announced he opposed this year's iteration of uranium legislation, and would vote to keep the ban in place due to a lack of certainty over exactly how uranium mining might react to the Virginia climate and an apprehension over the proposed regulatory framework adequately policing mining operations. District 17 Sen. Bryce Reeves never took a formal position on the proposed legislation, but said this week he agreed with the bill's withdrawal.
"I was glad to see that logical reason was utilized and the bill pulled prior to vote," said Reeves. "I personally had some legitimate reservations about the safety aspects of uranium mining and I truly appreciate the extent to which the uranium mining folks went to in educating legislators. I was concerned with the regulatory structure being in place prior to lifting any ban, as well."
Watkins promised a future legislative push to lift the state ban on uranium mining and establish regulations.
Patrick Wales, project manager for Virginia Uranium, the company looking to mine the Coles Hill site, said the withdrawal of the bill wasn't discouraging and that the company expected a long fight.
"We have taken a long-term approach to success and remain committed to developing this project," said Wales. "It's not uncommon for large pieces of legislation to take a couple sessions [to pass]. We were already looking at a four, five, six-year time period to produce regulations."
In the years before Virginia enacted its moratorium on uranium mining, Central Virginia, especially Orange County, was a targeted region for uranium exploration. Somerset farmer Bill Spieden was approached in the late 1970s about leasing his property for uranium exploration, but following extensive research into mining operations, declined the offer and became an outspoken opponent of uranium mining in Virginia. Perhaps the one thing Speiden agrees with pro-uranium folks about is the debate continuing well beyond the 2013 General Assembly Session.
"It's a victory for the 'keep the ban people'-for the moment," said Speiden. "It ain't over, it ain't over yet."