RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Like many fellow Virginia residents, the chairman of National Academy of Sciences panel that studied uranium mining is following the issue as the state wrestles with the possibility of ending a 30-year ban on mining the radioactive metal.
Unlike another Virginian on the committee, however, Paul A. Locke is keeping his opinion to himself. A member of his committee, Peter deFur, publicly stated his opposition to uranium mining in Virginia last week and he outlined the reasons in detail Thursday. He called the obstacles to uranium mining “insurmountable.”
That conclusion goes beyond the NAS findings last December that Virginia faced “steep hurdles” before it could safely allow mining. The committee did not say whether a 1982 ban should be ended.
Locke said he respects deFur’s decision to speak out now that the NAS contract is completed, but he’s decided to keep his views to himself while a multi-agency committee takes a deeper look at the issue.
“It’s within their rights to say whatever they want,” Locke said of the 14 members of the committee. “Me offering an opinion would be providing a lot of heat and not a lot of light.”
Gov. Bob McDonnell created the Uranium Working Group to examine regulatory issues, environmental and public health aspects and a range of other issues that would need to be addressed before the General Assembly considers whether to end the mining ban, perhaps as early as 2013.
Virginia Uranium Inc.’s desire to mine a 119-million-pound deposit in the state’s southern tier has revived an issue that has been dormant since the 1980s. The company has said it can mine one of the largest known deposits in the world, do it safely and generate jobs in a region that needs them and revenues for the state.
In an opinion piece he publicly released, deFur argues that Virginia faces too many obstacles to allow uranium mining. He cites many of the concerns raised by mining opponents. He is the founder of an environmental consulting firm in the Richmond area.
“Neither Virginia nor the U.S. government has any experience with uranium mining and processing east of the Mississippi in a rainy climate,” deFur wrote.
The Uranium Working Group brought in a team from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission on Thursday to Chatham to explain the agency’s possible role in overseeing the milling of uranium, a process that has generated the most concern among opponents. They fear storms or torrential rains could scatter vast amounts of radioactive waste called tailings into public water supplies. The ore is extracted from rock during the process.
Even before the meeting had begun, the Roanoke River Basin Association issued a statement critical of the NRC.
“They appear to have no relevant expertise or experience in regard to what is being proposed here in Virginia,” said Andrew Lester, executive director of the association. “They have not licensed a single new conventional uranium mill in almost three decades.”
Some critics have questioned the need for the state working group’s existence as well, contending the NAS study provided sufficient evidence to put the matter to rest.
Locke, an environmental health scientist and attorney, disagreed. He said the NAS report was not “meant to be the final say on anything.”
“We did a very comprehensive look at the issue, but it was a 50,000-foot look. People have very specific questions.”
Locke said of the working group, “One of the things I hope they’re doing is they’re trying to answer some of these much more specific questions.”
Locke said the committee brought together a wide range of interests — mining, public health, the environment — that would likely part ways now on whether Virginia should allow uranium mining. He hasn’t heard of other members publicly expressing their opinions.
A “range of expertise” is something the NAS strives for when assembling a study committee, spokeswoman Jennifer A. Walsh said in an email.
“The goal is to ensure that the relevant points of view are reasonably balanced so that a committee can carry out its charge objectively and credibly,” she said.
Locke, who has lived in Virginia for two decades, said he’ll withhold his opinion while the working group moves toward a November report on its findings.
“I am at this point very content to let the deliberative process go forward and just sit and listen as my fellow Virginians are doing,” he said.
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