What a dose of uranium will do to a policy debate
The apparent terror of Virginians living near a potential uranium mine illustrates how drastically things can change when they become personal.
Located at Coles Hill, about 60 miles southeast of Roanoke, the undeveloped uranium deposit is the only one in Virginia, but it is the largest in the United States. The land used to be owned by solely two families, but they've lately been handing a greater share of ownership to Virginia Energy Resources -- a Canadian company that invests in uranium and coal projects all over North America.
Actual mining of the deposit is still far away because Virginia has had a moratorium on uranium mining since the 1980s. Before legislators will consider whether to overturn the moratorium, they're waiting on the December 2011 completion of studies examining how mining would affect the area environmentally and socio-economically.
Most legislators, Democrats and Republicans alike, agree with doing the studies. But Coles Hill residents are objecting every step of the way.
The residents say the first study may not be trustworthy because it is being funded by Virginia Uranium Inc. -- the private company that owns the Coles Hill land. Never mind that it is being performed by probably the most reputable entity out there: the National Academy of Sciences.
As to the second study, residents say it's all a big conspiracy by legislators who have already staked their tent on the side of uranium mining. Del. Terry Kilgore (R-Scott), for instance, has been accused of pushing for the study through his chairmanship on the Virginia Coal and Energy Commission, then using his chairmanship of another body, Virginia's tobacco commission, to get it funded it.
The residents' argument has been bolstered, in part, by the eight tobacco commission members who voted against appropriating $200,000 for the study. One of those was Del. Watkins Abbitt (I-Appomattox), who said he didn't think it was a good use of the commission's funds because they're supposed to be used mainly for boosting the economies of tobacco-dependent communities and the studies wouldn't directly create jobs in the area.
Still, Abbitt and most legislators are looking forward to getting the results. Republican Del. Lee Ware (R-Powhatan), chairman of the Coal and Energy Commission's uranium subcommittee, wrote in an e-mail:
"Not 'til the technical study is completed would one be able to declare a reasonable and also definitive view one way or another on the question of whether the uranium deposit at Coles Hill could be efficiently and safely extracted. ... Similarly, not 'til the socio-economic study is completed will there be available for dispassionate deliberation the full range of views of both individuals and institutions in the area that would be affected by the proposed uranium mining operation."
The problem is, Coles Hill residents will probably never be capable of "dispassionate deliberation" on this issue. Type the word "uranium" into Google images, and horrifying photos of mangled babies appear. Can you blame residents for fearing uranium pollution in their drinking water, even if the studies do end up casting a positive light on the mining?
Fears that are perhaps irrational look foolish until a policy discussion becomes a personal discussion. Del. Abbitt put it this way: "I would not want to own my own land within a mile of it."
Paige Winfield Cunningham is an investigative reporter and managing editor at Old Dominion Watchdog. The Local Blog Network is a group of bloggers from around the D.C. region who have agreed to make regular contributions to All Opinions Are Local.
Paige Winfield Cunningham
| December 16, 2010; 5:09 PM ET
Categories: HotTopic, Local blog network, Virginia, economy, energy
Save & Share: Previous: Debating the District's deficit: Jack Evans
Next: Wrong way on insurance mandate in Va.
Posted by: Novitas | December 16, 2010 6:53 PM | Report abuse
The comments to this entry are closed.