RICHMOND, Va. (AP) -- In a preview of what could be the top issue before the General Assembly in 2012, supporters and opponents of uranium mining in Virginia offered starkly different views Thursday of opening one of the world's largest known deposits of the radioactive ore.
Proponents said tapping a 119-million-pound deposit in Southside Virginia would be an economic plus for a struggling region of the state and a step in the right direction of energy independence, while opponents said it would be a risky environmental gamble in a region where full-scale uranium mining has never occurred.
The arguments, offered at a daylong forum sponsored by the Garden Club of Virginia, were made about one month before a highly anticipated scientific report examining the statewide impacts of lifting a 1982 state ban on uranium mining and allowing the mining and milling of the radioactive ore.
The National Academy of Sciences report will not recommend whether the state should end the moratorium, but it is expected to be a primary source of information if it heads to the legislature.
Virginia Uranium Inc., which has proposed mining the world's seventh-largest known uranium deposit, has said it will wait for the NAS study before deciding whether to seek legislation to end the ban. The company has invested heavily in lobbying lawmakers, and has flown more than a dozen to France and Canada to press their contention that mining and milling can be safely done.
Environmentalists said they fully expect the issue to be considered in the 2012 session.
Thursday's forum featured a series of panels examining the environmental, economic and public health aspects of allowing the mining.
Proponents cited statistics that show that the U.S. obtains about 90 percent of its uranium to fuel nuclear power plants, which generate 20 percent of the electricity in the U.S. They said the ore that would be mined would be processed into yellowcake to power future nuclear generation.
Patrick Wales, project manager for Virginia Uranium, described the uranium industry as one of the safest, though he acknowledged mistakes in the past, and said it is "unimaginable" that state regulators couldn't properly oversee the mining operation.
"It has been mined successfully mined around the world,'" Wales said.
"I don't think there are examples of this occurring safely anywhere," countered Christopher Miller, president of the Piedmont Environmental Council.
The mine would be located in an environment that is subject to hurricanes and drenching rains, which have the potential to wash radioactive tailings downstream, environmentalists said. The city of Virginia Beach, which draws its water from the region, has conducted a study that raises the possibility of the mine and its radioactive waste fouling city waters during a catastrophic storm.
Paul A. Locke, who chairs the NAS uranium study panel, said the primary regulation of the mine would fall to the state. The miners who would extract the ore would be overseen by several federal agencies.
Opponents questioned whether Virginia has the resources to oversee a type of mining that has never occurred east of the Mississippi. Most domestic uranium mining occurs in the southwest.
"Make no mistake, mining of uranium is a major industrial process producing large levels of waste and radioactive materials," Miller said. "This has to be managed into perpetuity."
"The state is going to depend on the General Assembly to put some money up," said William Robinson, an environmentalist who specializes in uranium issues. "Otherwise they'll be underfunded and unable to ensure safe activities."
"I have no problems with believing they'll be able to regulate," said Robert Bodnar, a Virginia Tech geologist.
The state Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy regulates mining in Virginia.
"We're not talking about a new regulatory agency," Wales said. "We mine a lot of things in Virginia."
Mining opponents also said ending the ban would open the entire state to uranium mining. While the Coles Hill project in Pittsylvania County is the only known commercially viable deposit in Virginia, geologists have said other areas of the state such as the Piedmont area have indications of uranium deposits.
"What we are concerned about is they may have missing something the first time around," said Miller, referring to mining companies that leased thousands of acres in the 1980s.
Wales said opponents are using the prospect of other mines to generate statewide interest and activism in the issue. "We're only interested in the Coles Hill project," he said.
During a question-and-answer session, Wales did acknowledge that Virginia Uranium has assembled a large number of lobbyists to argue its case at the Capitol.
"We do have lobbyists, and quite a few of them," he said. "It is, unfortunately, the way a lot of things are accomplished in Richmond."
Environmental groups also released a letter to the NAS panel studying uranium mining seeking a series of "town hall" meetings in Virginia and North Carolina once the study is released in December. They said the hearings are critical to winning public confidence in the report.
"Unfortunately, the uranium mining industry is now pressing state legislators to lift Virginia's mining ban during the upcoming legislative session -- before this committee's project has been completed," according to the letter, which was written on letterhead of the Southern Environmental Law Center. The names of seven other groups were listed in the letter.
Steve Szkotak can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sszkotakap