By Tim Davis/Star-Tribune | Posted: Wednesday, June 20, 2012 9:00 am
Warren County residents Ken and Deborah Ferruccio were among the 250 people who attended a public meeting Monday in Chatham, Va. on uranium mining and milling that opponents say will negatively impact local water sources. The first of five such meetings of Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell’s Uranium Working Group lasted three-and-a-half-hours and filled Chatham High School’s auditorium.
The Ferruccios were leaders in fighting North Carolina state government over the PCB landfill sited here in the 1980s and helped give birth to what is known nationally as the “environmental justice movement.”
“Keep the Ban” signs festooned the road leading to the high school, and inside uranium mining opponents held homemade signs warning of the risks and dangers of radiation.
Virginia Uranium Inc., which hopes to mine the Coles Hill uranium deposit in Pittsylvania County, Va., parked its exhibit trailer at the school, and supporters wore stickers touting jobs the mine and mill will bring.
One young man who videotaped the meeting sported an “I Dig U Mining” sticker on his shirt.
In January, McDonnell established a working group of experts from the Virginia Department of Health, Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, and Department of Mines, Minerals, and Energy to examine the health and safety concerns, environmental questions, and economic impact from uranium mining.
Cathie J. France, deputy director of energy policy for the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals, and Energy, described the working group’s role as a “fact-finding mission.”
France said the study will include a site-specific analysis of Coles Hill, which was omitted in the National Academy of Sciences December 2011 report.
“There have been a lot of studies done and those studies have raised a lot of questions,” she said. “We have not made any conclusions. We will not take a position one way or the other on whether the ban should be lifted. The information we provide will be used by decision-makers.”
The working group has hired Wright Environmental Services, a Colorado consulting firm, to help with the study.
Wright will be paid more than $1 million in two separate contracts with the three state agencies.
President Toby Wright said the consulting firm has put together a team of scientists and experts with 200 years of combined experience in uranium mining and milling.
The working group will present its findings to the governor in late November or early December.
It will be up to lawmakers to decide whether to lift the moratorium on uranium mining, which has been in place since 1982.
France said the working group will produce a draft conceptual statutory and regulatory framework, but will not write regulations on uranium mining and milling unless told to do so by the General Assembly.
If legislators lift the ban, it would take about two years to draft and approve regulations for uranium mining and milling, according to Tom Bibb, a manager with the state mining department.
Virginia Uranium then would have to apply for a permit, which would take at least another year.
Bibb said any proposed uranium mining permit would be posted online, and the public would be involved in the approval process.
Virginia Uranium announced plans in 2007 to explore mining the Coles Hill uranium deposit, which was discovered in the 1970s. Located about six miles northeast of Chatham, it is believed to be the largest uranium deposit in the United States and is worth an estimated $7 billion.
Company officials said the uranium mine and mill would support more than 1,050 jobs and provide an annual economic impact of $135 million over 35 years.
Monday’s meeting focused on mine permitting, environmental impact analysis and environmental monitoring of mine sites, engineering designs and best management practices, disposal of mine waste, and mine site reclamation, compliance and enforcement.
William Lassetter, a geologist with the Department of Mines, Minerals, and Energy, gave a detailed and lengthy presentation on the permitting process.
The department regulates Virginia’s $2.2 billion coal industry as well as gas and oil production and minerals mining.
Lassetter acknowledged that existing mining laws and regulations do not address the unique characteristics of uranium.
“Uranium mining would require a comprehensive regulatory program that incorporates specific technical standards, best management practices, and key public input and transparency throughout the life cycle of mining,” he said.
Although regulations would govern the entire state, Coles Hill is the only known uranium deposit of commercial interest in Virginia.
“That doesn’t mean it’s the only site,” said Lassetter. “For that reason, we need to have a statewide regulatory framework.”
According to the geologist, the uranium mining permitting process would include an exhaustive environmental impact analysis, application, agency review, public input, bonding and financial liability.
The key component – an environmental impact analysis – would include background radiation surveys as well as environmental controls on air and surface and groundwater.
Run-off from mine waste, tailings, and ore stockpiles would be considered along with future impact of the mine on groundwater.
Engineering design standards would consider the possibility of extreme weather, including hurricanes and tornadoes, as well as seismic events like last year’s earthquake that rattled Virginia.
Every mining permit also requires an approved reclamation plan.
If uranium mining is approved, Lassetter said the department will need additional staff, including mine inspectors, mining engineers, groundwater modeling experts, and technical specialists.
Additional costs would likely be funded by the uranium mining industry through permitting and other fees.
The Uranium Working Group plans to hold additional public meetings in August, October and November.
An Aug. 2 meeting in Danville, Va. will focus on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which oversees uranium milling. An Aug. 28 meeting in Virginia Beach will review water and air quality issues.
The working group will return to Chatham for its October meeting, which will focus on public health and safety.
Its final meeting will be in November in Richmond and will target worker health and safety and emergency preparedness and response.
At the end of each meeting, following updates by working group experts, the public will have an opportunity to comment, France said. In addition, the public can submit comments by mail or the website throughout the review process.
A summary of written comments will be presented at each meeting, she said.
The group’s website, www.uwg.vi.virginia.gov, has received about 70 comments to date, according to the deputy director.
“While this research and analysis is under way, we are actively soliciting, considering, and incorporating public comments, questions, and concerns and have planned for multiple opportunities for public comment in advance of any final product being delivered to the governor,” the website states.
“We have made a particular effort to be sure we receive input in a way that in itself is public and transparent, and that allows it to be fully incorporated into the work of the group.”
In addition to comments and the group’s scope of work, most of the uranium studies, including ones going back to the early 1980s, have been posted or are in the process of being posted to the website.
Citizens can also sign up for an email list.
About 30 people spoke at Monday night’s meeting.
Speakers were asked to sign up and submit questions in writing.
Del. Terry Kilgore, chairman of the Virginia Coal and Energy Commission, moderated the comment session, which was extended an hour to give everyone time to speak.
“Why are we here?” asked Jack Dunavant, chairman of We the People, which has fought uranium mining for 30 years. “We have one law to protect us. It’s called a moratorium.”
A professional engineer, Dunavant said the problem with uranium mining is mill tailings – “finer than sugar, like beach sand.”
“You cannot keep it out of the river. You cannot keep it out of the water and air,” he said. “I hope you will go back to Richmond and do something other than force this down our throats.”
Nancy Smith of Axton, Va. agreed.
“Take this back to the governor and ask him why he is wasting all of this money and trying to ram down our throats something we don’t want,” she said. “If uranium mining could be done safely that would be wonderful, but science hasn’t gotten there yet.”
Linda Frank, who lives three miles from Coles Hill, asked if there were any buyers for her 150-acre farm.
“I find it mind-boggling that we’re talking about permitting an industry that is known to cause cancer,” said Frank, who has cancer. “We’re talking about putting an industry in that benefits so few at a cost to so many.”
Elizabeth Jones, chairman of the Pittsylvania County Democratic Committee, presented a resolution asking the state to adopt a permanent ban.
In a statement, The Virginia Coalition, a group of community and business leaders from Southside Virginia, said the working group’s presentation failed to address the long-term economic consequences of uranium mining.
“As a business owner and longtime resident of Southside Virginia, I have great concern that the uranium working group has little to no understanding of the tremendous negative impact that uranium mining would have on the quality of life and the economic growth of Southside Virginia,” said chairman John Cannon.
Not everyone sees it that way.
Ray Ganther, chairman of the Virginia Energy Alliance, said the United States needs to develop its energy resources.
“If we can bring on a project like Coles Hill we can reduce our dependence on foreign energy,” Ganther said.
Chris Koumparakis of Henry County said the nation is facing a national emergency and needs to focus more on nuclear power.
“It’s not if we lift the moratorium, but when we do it,” he said. “We need it for this country’s survival.”
A news conference held by Piedmont Residents in Defense of the Environment (PRIDE) and the Roanoke River Basin Association before the meeting turned into a shouting match in the school lobby.
Environmental groups accused Gov. McDonnell of “sidestepping Virginia’s legislative process” by establishing the Uranium Working Group.
“Citizens in the Roanoke River basin’s watershed are concerned about such cavalier handling of taxpayers’ money, the constitutionality and legality of the governor’s undertaking, the lack of meaningful opportunities for public involvement, and the cloud of secrecy around the process employed by the Uranium Working Group, as well as the possibility of unlimited access by the industry people and their lobbyists to the decision-makers,” the groups said.
PRIDE’s Karen Maute said citizens are being “railroaded” by the governor and coal and energy commission.
“This train needs to be stopped.”
Paul Robinson, research director of the Southwest Research and Information Center in New Mexico, said the working group doesn’t have the proper technical expertise or political independence.
“It seems that the governor was unhappy with the National Academy of Sciences results and formed his own panel from his own staff rather than relying on the findings of independent technical experts and the prestige of the National Academies,” said Robinson, who is working with the Roanoke River Basin Association.
Mike Pucci with the newly formed North Carolina Coalition Against Uranium Mining noted that a million North Carolina residents depend on the Roanoke River downstream from Coles Hill.
“The Roanoke River is the lifeblood of the eastern part of our state,” said Pucci.
Warren County resident Deborah Ferruccio said opponents will resort to civil disobedience if necessary to stop uranium mining.
“You won’t shut up the people who want to stop this,” she said. “We’re going to join together and stop it, whatever it takes.”
Tim Davis is editor of the Star-Tribune in Chatham, Va.