Watkins pulls uranium mining bill

newspaper-headerAfter a multi-year battle that included intensive industry lobbying, multiple scientific and economic studies, and fierce opposition from a uniquely diverse coalition, a legislative effort to lift Virginia’s longstanding ban on uranium mining has failed.

A bill introduced by State Sen. John Watkins, which along with a similar House measure by Del. Jackson Miller would have effectively ended the 31-year ban, met with resounding defeat today as Watkins pulled the bill due to lack of support.

“We’ve all read the studies at this point, and we’ve heard what the National Academy of Sciences is telling us-the long-term risks are real,” said Cale Jaffe, director of Charlottesville office of the Southern Environmental Law Center. “Today’s action sends a clear message that legislators have heard us, and whether we’re business owners, farmers, doctors, or parents, we are not willing to risk our health, our water quality, and our economy on a high-stakes gamble with uranium mining.”

Virginia has commissioned multiple studies on uranium mining, processing, and waste disposal. The studies have considered the state’s wet climate, susceptibility to hurricanes, and impacts on large population centers such as Hampton Roads. The most prominent study by the National Academy of Sciences found that, “Tailings disposal sites represent significant potential sources of contamination for thousands of years, and the long-term risks remain poorly defined.”

“Public health and environmental groups have stood with local governments to oppose this because this affects the drinking water for over a million people in Virginia and North Carolina,” said Nathan Lott, executive director of the Virginia Conservation Network. “Chambers of Commerce and economic development groups have fought this because they know the stigma of opening up a large-scale uranium mining operation in Southside would have hurt local businesses. It’s rare that you see such diverse groups and legislators from both parties stand together on a single issue, but we’ve seen it to defeat this legislation.”

“People of faith have been engaged in this issue and we believe it is an unnecessary burden to ask the people of Virginia to bear the costs of uranium mining and milling,” said Katie Preston, director of Virginia Interfaith Power & Light. “We have a moral responsibility to stand up and speak out for the protection of the Creation and the health and welfare of our neighbors across the Commonwealth and across the state line in North Carolina.”

Virginia Energy Resources, the Canadian-based company that claims 100% ownership of the Coles Hill deposit, might still seek to use “back door” political tricks, such as budget amendments, to pursue its agenda in Virginia. Southside residents, however, have made it clear they would oppose any effort to circumvent the democratic process on this controversial issue.

“The people of Virginia have spoken, and most importantly the people of Southside Virginia have spoken,” said Andrew Lester, executive director of Roanoke River Basin Association. “We need to move on rather than continuing to debate an issue that threatens so many wonderful opportunities for preserving and enhancing our resources within the Roanoke River watershed.”

“We hope this strong consensus in support of keeping the ban means that today is the final chapter on uranium mining in Virginia,” stated Dan Holmes, director of state policy for the Piedmont Environmental Council. “But if the opposition sees this merely as a pause in their effort to lift the ban and continues to push it through with other tactics, it would be a damaging blow to public confidence in the process and their government.”

The Keep the Ban Coalition has collected more than 18,000 signatures in opposition to uranium mining. “We know legislators from across the state are hearing from their constituents opposing uranium mining. And we appreciate that so many legislators are listening to their concerns,” said Glen Besa, Virginia Director of the Sierra Club.

“This action clearly demonstrates the high priority Virginians of every region place on protecting and preserving the Commonwealth’s natural heritage, lands and waters,” said Jeffrey Painter, executive director of the Virginia League of Conservation Voters.

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