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2 Va. Gov hopefuls weigh in on uranium mining

Steve Szkotak, Associated Press

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) -- If Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell decides against reviving the issue of uranium mining this year, the two men who are likely to succeed him are willing to keep the issue alive in 2014.

Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli and Democrat Terry McAuliffe conditionally said they would be open to consider uranium mining, in response to an Associated Press request for their positions on the fiercely debated subject. Each identified key factors in their ultimate decision, such as its economic impact and whether mining can be done safely.

Cuccinelli goes further than his presumptive Democratic opponent in November, stating that some of those questions could be answered if state regulations governing mining were in place before the General Assembly takes up the issue anew, as proponents have suggested.

"This would clarify what would be involved and would eliminate any uncertainty prior to the General Assembly's decision," Cuccinelli's office said in a statement.

Despite a big build up to the 2013 session of the General Assembly, proposals to end a 1983 prohibition on uranium mining failed to even achieve a committee vote amid almost certain defeat. Mining supporters then suggested that McDonnell direct the appropriate agencies to draw up regulations to better inform legislators when they take up the issue again, which is expected.

McDonnell has said he is giving the suggestion any thought while he continues to review legislation passed by the General Assembly and until after an April veto session. He has also raised the possibility he might not take a public position on uranium mining.

The issue is being pushed by Virginia Uranium Inc., which wants to mine a 119-million-pound deposit of the radioactive ore in Pittsylvania County. Is the largest known uranium deposit in the United States.

Before it can mine, however, a decades-old ban must be lifted by the General Assembly. Virginia Uranium has made it clear it will not walk away from a deposit it values at $7 billion.

McAuliffe and Cuccinelli offered succinct responses to the question of uranium mining, with the attorney general offering a slightly more expansive answer.

"Mr. Cuccinelli feels the factors that should be weighed ... include the safety of miners and the surrounding community, jobs created, tax revenues generated, the environmental impact, the cultural impact on the region, and energy independence for Virginia and America," wrote Caroline Gibson, a spokeswoman for his office.

She said Cuccinelli "believes that it would be appropriate" to have regulations in place before the General Assembly considers ending the ban.

McAuliffe's campaign issued his response:

"Any economic proposal in these tough times merits a hard look. However, I would need to be certain that mining uranium can be done safely and cleaned up completely before a moratorium is lifted."

McAuliffe added Tuesday, "So far I have not seen that."

McAuliffe is a businessman and former chairman of the National Democratic Committee.

Opponents and supporters of mining would argue those questions both men cite have already been answered. Uranium mining has been studied extensively over the past few years, from an environmental and economic perspective. A study by the National Academy of Sciences, completed in late 2011, is the most widely accepted.

The mostly commonly cited portion of the report states Virginia would have to overcome "steep hurdles" before allowing mining and milling of the ore to ensure the safety of workers, the public and the environment. Mining supporters cite a section of the report that states "internationally accepted best practices" governing mining could be a starting point for Virginia.

Full-fledged uranium mining has never occurred on the East Coast. Critics say the state's climate is too wet and prone to tropical storms to allow uranium mining and milling, or the separation of ore from rock.

Virginia Uranium says mining and milling can be done safely and create jobs in the economically depressed Southside region of the state.

Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling was expected to offer anti-mining voters an option in November after he declared his opposition to uranium mining, but has since abandoned a GOP or independent bid for governor.


Steve Szkotak can be reached on Twitter at https://twitter.com/sszkotakap .