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Anti-uranium forces press Va. candidates for gov

Steve Szkotak, Associated Press

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) -- Opponents of uranium mining in Virginia met with Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe on the issue and they said he's solidly in their corner, while a meeting with Republican nominee Ken Cuccinelli has yet to be arranged.

Gov. Bob McDonnell, in the meantime, has not decided his response to a February suggestion that he direct state agencies to put uranium mining regulations in place to help guide the 2014 General Assembly if it considers ending a decades-old prohibition on uranium mining in Virginia.

The two pro-mining legislators who proposed the approach after legislation fell flat in the 2013 session are divided on whether the issue will emerge in the next session of the Legislature.

The meeting between mining opponents and McAuliffe occurred in Danville about three weeks ago. Two who attended said McAuliffe was clearly opposed to ending the state's 1982 moratorium on uranium mining.

"He said he had studied the issue and that it made absolutely no sense, either economically or scientifically," said Jack Dunavant, a longtime opponent of uranium mining from Halifax County. "He was opposed to it and he said you can quote me on that."

Andrew Lester, executive director of the Roanoke River Basin Association, said McAuliffe called uranium mining a "horrible idea."

Lester, who was not representing the association at the meeting, said McAuliffe assured him, "I'll tell you right off the bat you don't have to worry about me. I am against this thing."

McAuliffe has stated in the past that he would "need to be certain that mining uranium can be done safely and cleaned up completely before a moratorium is lifted. So far I have not seen that."

His campaign said that remains his position. His opposition is based on concerns that water sources could be threatened by mining or natural events and that mining and milling couldn't be cleaned up completely, the campaign said.

Virginia Uranium Inc. and other proponents argue that a 119-million-pound deposit in Southside could be mined and milled safely and that it would create hundreds of jobs and revenues in a region of the state that desperately needs both. The Pittsylvania County uranium is among the largest known deposits of the radioactive ore in the world. It is valued at $7 billion.

Before it can be mined, however, the moratorium must be lifted. Proposals to do that in the General Assembly didn't get out of committee.

Opponents contend uranium mining in Virginia's wet, storm-prone climate is a bad idea and could lead to radioactive-laced tailings, or waste, fouling water sources in a catastrophic storm. Full-fledged uranium mining has never occurred on the East Coast.

Dunavant said he has attempted to arrange a meeting with Cuccinelli, with no success.

A spokesman for Cuccinelli, the attorney general, confirmed the attempt in March and provided a response by a scheduler seeking a written request for the meeting. "To date, the scheduler has not received anything back from them," spokesman Brian J. Gottstein said.

The response from the scheduler said Cuccinelli was "still in the process of collecting information regarding uranium mining."

In response to an Associated Press request in March, Cuccinelli said he supports the suggestion that the draft uranium regulations be available before the General Assembly weighs legislation to lift the moratorium.

Sen. John Watkins, a Powhatan Republican who suggested that McDonnell have his agencies draft the regulations, said he has yet to hear back from McDonnell on his proposal.

"He's got a lot of things going on his life right now," Watkins said. "I'm not sure where this fits in the order of priorities."

Watkins cast the debate as a property rights issue that is caught in a Catch 22.

"If you don't have the regulations, who would vote for it?" he asked. He added he's not sure uranium mining will emerge in the 2014 session.

"It's a matter of what happens between now and then," he said.

Delegate Terry Kilgore, a southwest Republican, agreed on the importance of having the regulations spelled out for legislators, but said he expects the issue to return in the next session at the Capitol.

"I just think there are a lot of folks that really want to see uranium mining happen in Virginia and I think a lot of people are not going to be satisfied until they get a vote on it," he said.

As for McDonnell, his office said of the suggestion: "The governor is aware of the positions on both sides of this issue and has made no decisions in that regard."


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