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Posted at 5:09 PM ET, 12/16/2010

What a dose of uranium will do to a policy debate

By Paige Winfield Cunningham

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.

By Paige Winfield Cunningham  | December 16, 2010; 5:09 PM ET
Categories:  HotTopic, Local blog network, Virginia, economy, energy  
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I suppose the observation that when an issue becomes personal people evaluate things differently is fair enough. What is disappointing about this state of affairs is that bringing more emotion and less rationality to an issue rarely results in better decisions. The cited case is no exception. What is disappointing about the commentary is that it seems content merely to describe the bad decision making. Does the author share the viewpoint of the locals? Does she think they ought be looking at things differently? I certainly do.

The above cited residents are ALREADY LIVING IN THE MIDST OF URANIUM DEPOSITS. No one is proposing adding more radioactive material to the area. Has anyone done any studies to evaluate whether this NATURAL URANIUM DEPOSIT is already leeching into the drinking water simply by being there? After all, doing nothing is not necessarily a safe course either.

The focus should be on the details of how the ore is proposed to be removed and handled. How the operation would be monitored, and how safety (both for the workers and the public) would be continuously and transparently assured in the midst of the necessary disturbance of the natural deposit.

In any event the risks -- such as they are -- would be borne not at the mining site where the uranium is in a much less dense state than it would be after processing, but the processing site (likely very far away) where it will be purified.

If the locals are that psychologically allergic to the presence of uranium, removing it from their midst should be seen by them as a GOOD THING.

Posted by: Novitas | December 16, 2010 6:53 PM | Report abuse

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