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Uranium mining focus of AP Capitol forum

Steve Szkotak, Associated Press

Del. Donald Merricks, R-Pittsylvania, right, gestures as Patrick Wales, project manager for Virginia Uranium Inc., left, listens during a panel discussion on uranium mining at the Capitol as part of AP Day at the capitol Thursday, Dec. 6, 2012 in Richmond, Va. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) -- A forum on uranium mining Thursday addressed the thicket of regulatory, environmental and economic issues Virginia will need to address in 2013 and beyond if it ends a 30-year ban on the practice.

Four panelists who are among the leading voices on uranium mining participated in the discussion at AP Day at the Capitol, an annual program that examines key legislation and policy to be taken up by the General Assembly and political leaders in the year ahead.

The panel included Cale Jaffe of the Southern Environmental Law Center; Paul Locke, who led a National Academy of Sciences study of uranium mining; Delegate Donald Merricks, a Republican whose Southside Virginia district includes one of the largest known uranium deposits in the world; and Patrick Wales, project manager for Virginia Uranium Inc., the company that wants to end the 1982 moratorium and mine the 119-million-pound deposit in Pittsylvania County.

Wales made it clear the company is committed to mining the radioactive ore, even if it suffers a setback in 2013 in Richmond. Sen. John Watkins, R-Powhatan, announced this week he would have legislation drafted to end the ban and establish regulatory controls for the industry. Its prospects in the legislature are not known.

"We've got a $7 billion project," Wales told the gathering of journalists at the Statehouse. "We've got one of the best projects in the world, and do you really think we're going to give up and walk away? This issue is not going away."

Jaffe, a senior staff attorney at the SELC, and Merricks said they aren't convinced uranium can be mined and milled safely. They and other opponents fear radioactive waste might be scattered in a devastating storm or a torrential rain, fouling public drinking supplies and farm fields.

"We see the risks as significantly outweighing the potential benefits," Jaffe said. "We're looking at an extraordinarily high-stakes gamble, and it's not a gamble the state of Virginia should take."

Merricks said a report issued last week by the state's Uranium Working Group provided the framework for regulations that would need to be in place for the mining to occur, but he said it didn't address all his concerns.

"I'm convinced in my mind that even if you had the best management practices, it doesn't eliminate the risks involved with the mining and the milling," Merricks said.

Milling involves the separation of rock and uranium. Waste rock laced with uranium, called tailings, ultimately must be stored for generations.

Virginia Uranium has pledged to store the waste in secure below-ground containment units to minimize risk.

Locke, an environmental health scientist, has not publicly stated his position on uranium mining, and he didn't budge Thursday. His NAS committee issued a report on uranium mining one year ago that said Virginia faced a tall task before it could regulate mining and milling. The report did not offer a recommendation on the ban.

He agreed that even the most robust regulatory oversight does not ensure that uranium mining would be risk-free.

"It's a very, very, very formidable task," Locke said. "It will require a lot of analysis. We can't give anybody a bullet-proof guarantee."

Locke also said establishing the appropriate controls for mining would require a high level of expertise and resources.

Full-scale uranium mining has never occurred east of the Mississippi River.

Wales said Virginia Uranium welcomed the most stringent regulatory controls. The Pittsylvania County uranium deposit is on property owned by the Coles family, who date back generations and continue to live there.

"We drink the water. Our children play in these fields," Wales said. "We have the highest stakes as well ensuring that this is done in an environmentally friendly way."


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