With a flood of new federal regulations hitting everything from healthcare, energy, food safety, and bird protection, it is encouraging to know that some states can still think for themselves. In Virginia, Governor Bob McDonnell, while campaigning, declared that he was going to make Virginia the Energy Capitol of the East Coast—after all Virginia is blessed with abundant energy resources such as coal, offshore oil and gas, and one of the largest uranium deposits in the world. His plans have been thwarted by the federal government.
The EPA is trying to regulate coal mining out of existence. Federal restrictions have prevented Virginia from being able to access its offshore oil and gas resources—despite bipartisan support within the state for drilling. However, on Monday, January 7, McDonnell was handed an opportunity to differentiate himself from President Obama—something all upwardly mobile Republicans are going to have to do following the disappointing fiscal cliff deal.
With just one year left in his term, the rising-star Republican governor can still make good on his campaign promise. Under his control is uranium mining in Virginia.
Virginia has maintained a moratorium on uranium mining for more than 30 years. It has never happened in the state—as a result, there are no guidelines or regulations for how to do it. The environmental lobby, that opposes extraction of anything, has been able to keep the moratorium in place by maximizing the fear of the unknown. While McDonnell didn’t initially come out in favor of uranium mining—instead dodging a decision by having studies done and commissions appointed, he has come to realize that the environmentalists just don’t want any extraction. During at 2012 radio interview he sounded frustrated when he said: “These people don’t want us to even study it. They’ve made their decision. They’ve made up their mind that they don’t want us to look at it. They don’t want us to study it. They don’t want us to have any mining going on. That’s just ridiculous. What I want to do is just get the facts. I don’t have a decision made. They do. Our job—at the direction of the General Assembly—is to get the facts and to determine ‘can we mine it safely?’”
Well, the facts are in.
The Coal and Energy Commission’s Uranium Study Subcommittee (made up of legislators and citizens) commissioned two studies—one “quantitative” that reviewed the technical issues which was conducted by the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences; and the other “qualitative” that evaluated questions of probable social and economic consequences that was conducted by a private firm: Chmura Associates of Richmond. With the study results in, public hearings held, and field trips to the Coles Hill uranium deposit and to safe and successful mining operations in Canada, the Commission, on January 7, voted 11-2 to lift the 31-year old moratorium—subject to approval by the General Assembly.
Others such as the Heritage Foundation and the Heartland Institute have weighed in in favor of the Coles Hill project. Jay Lehr, who holds a Ph.D. in groundwater hydrology from the University of Arizona and is editor of the Nuclear Energy Encyclopedia, said the following regarding the January 7 decision:
“It is a great day indeed when a government body listens to science in making decisions that impact a state’s economy in a positive way. That is what occurred today when Virginia officials recommended lifting a long-held moratorium on uranium mining within its boundaries.
Virginia is home to what will likely prove to be one of the world’s largest uranium ore finds and certainly among the largest in the United States. Concern for the environment and public health has held up the development of this resource for many years. Reports were written, data was acquired, and the clear conclusion was that this resource can be mined to the benefit of the state and the nation with absolutely no hazard to the state’s environment or the health of either the citizens of the state or the mine and mill workers. Strict regulatory programs will be in place on the part of both the federal and state governments to ensure this very positive outcome.
At a time when our nation’s 104 nuclear power plants have been dependent on foreign sources for nuclear fuel, this is an important and positive development for our nation and the Commonwealth of Virginia.”
The January 7 hearing included speakers for and against uranium mining in Pittsylvania County—an area formerly known for Tobacco farming. Buddy Mayhew, a retired tobacco farmer and teacher who is a life-long resident of the region where the mining would take place was one of the “pro-mining” presenters. He said:
“Those of us who recall more prosperous days in Southside worry about the lack of economic opportunities in the area. As a former school teacher, I know what that means for our schools and our ability to invest in our future.
Our region continues to have the highest unemployment rate in the Commonwealth as both manufacturing and tobacco abandoned Southside. This is a condition that we cannot simply accept; we must continue to look for opportunities to change it. That is why the prospect of uranium mining deserves every consideration.
The Coles Hill project would mean good paying jobs for many in my community and new business opportunities for businesses already in the region. In addition, the project would attract companies that would come to support the mine and hire even more of our residents.”
(Mayhew spoke on behalf of the People for Economic Prosperity, a grassroots group of more than 1200 farmers and small business owners in southern Virginia who support the mining project.)
Uranium mining in Pittsylvania County could create 1,000 jobs, $5 billion in new revenue for Virginia companies, and $110 million in local and state tax revenue. With the global uranium market surging—430 nuclear power plants worldwide and 65 new reactors under construction (with more planned)—more uranium is being consumed than is being mined. Uranium mining in Virginia will not only help the state, it will also help the U.S. trade deficit.
State Senator John Watkins has already drafted legislation based on suggestions in a report from the Governor’s Work Study Group that would lift the moratorium. Passage of the legislation is the next step. Because the Commission has moved to lift the moratorium, and the Commission is made up of the legislators many of whom are the key players, the most knowledgeable on energy issues, the commission’s vote is a positive step. Hopefully McDonnell is paying close attention. He said he wanted the commission to speak before he made up his mind. Now that they have spoken, the ball will be in his court.
Watkins’ bill will not allow mining to begin, but it will allow the process of allowing mining to begin. The appropriate agencies would begin to develop regulations that would, ultimately, open the door for companies to apply for mining permits.
At a time when leadership in government is sadly lacking, Governor McDonnell can set himself apart and secure his legacy as a job creator by signing the bill when it comes to his desk. Perhaps Virginia can become the Energy Capitol of the East Coast after all.
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