Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Civil War (Uranium Mining Civil War)

Comment:  Yes, the pro uranium people are full of bullspit (a good word)!  No to uranium mining and thanks for such a great article!

By Tom McLaughlin
SoVaNow.com / July 28, 2010
Catching up with the news:

A few weeks ago this page featured dueling commentaries on uranium mining by respected voices on both sides of the issue, Dr. Robert Bodnar of Virginia Tech (a mining proponent) and Katie Whitehead of the Dan River Basin Association (an opponent). Together they made their respective arguments for and against the Virginia Uranium/ Coles Hill mine project upstream from us in Pittsylvania County. Mostly, however, the conversation was notable for attempting to strike a properly civil tone.

In their forward, Bodnar and Whitehead wrote: “We want to demonstrate that the uranium mining issue involves more than the issue of safety. We also want to counter [the] perception of the uranium mining controversy as a battleground with only two sides: advocates and opponents who rarely speak or listen to each other, convinced only half the conversation has merit. It’s possible to learn from people with whom we disagree. Valuable conversation and debate can happen when we respect different points of view.”

There’s nothing about that statement which any reasonable person could disagree with — provided, of course, all sides come to the table with the best of intentions.

Alas, you’ll have a difficult time convincing people that this is so when at least one side is also coming to the table hoping to cash in on an uranium deposit worth up to $10 billion by some estimates.

This isn’t meant as a knock on Dr. Bodnar. He clearly approaches the mining issue from the standpoint of a scientist who has made a career of understanding the natural world and seeking, when appropriate, to bring it under mankind’s control. That’s what scientists do.

Nor is the fact that Virginia Tech, his employer, dependent on mining interests to fund its research a disqualifier in this debate.

I suspect that when the National Academy of Sciences issues its own assessment of mining’s feasibility, we will see a similar disposition at work— at its core, a belief that humankind can figure out ways to do inherently risky stuff like mine radioactive ore.

You can’t ask scientists to undertake a feasibility review and expect them to come back and admit flat-out that science can’t, under any circumstances, provide the answers that people are looking for.

Katie Whitehead, for her part, argued persuasively in her July 7 piece that the decision to move forward with the Coles Hill project should hinge not solely on the science but on the social and economic impacts of mining smack-dab in Southside’s largest population center.

Whitehead, for whom I have enormous respect, is perhaps the most active voice in Richmond for the anti-mining point of view. And she’s a formidable writer.

While we can’t reprint every word from her back-and-forth with Bodnar (you can, however, revisit the debate at The Sun’s new website, http://www.sovanow.com/)

I thought there were times in that exchange where, to put it rather mildly, she took Bodnar to the cleaners.

One of Bodnar’s main arguments was that the Coles Hill mine is pivotal to America’s energy security. Seemingly in response, Whitehead wrote:

The United States, including Virginia, has reliable uranium suppliers, chief among them Canada and Australia, whose known uranium resources have expanded — not shrunk — as demand has increased in recent years. Canadian, Australian, and U.S. companies also mine uranium in other countries, where it is not only abundant, but costs less to produce due to cheap labor and lower environmental standards .... Utilities and other businesses buy at the lowest price on the global free market.

Even if they want to, they may not buy uranium from Virginia. Companies mining in Virginia would have to compete with suppliers worldwide. The pressure of price competition would tend to erode promotional claims of family-wage jobs and strict adherence to safety standards.

All this is true, and in sharp contrast to the strawman arguments that Dr. Bodnar peppered throughout his piece. (“While much of our uranium comes from currently friendly countries, including Canada and Australia, we must remember that Venezuela was once a friendly country that provided a not insignificant portion of our oil imports,” Bodnar wrote. It still does. So what’s the point?)

Whitehead’s piece was by far the more sound of the two.

Which brings us back to the question:

Should such nice, polite debates be the template for building opposition to uranium mining, or are sharper words better suited to the task?

I always get nervous when big issues are left to the so-called serious people in the room to settle — and uranium mining in Southside Virginia is as close to an existential question as anything this region is ever likely to see.

Why shouldn’t people get hot under the collar when people such as Bodnar offer up arguments that, if not personally self-serving, promote Virginia Uranium’s interests in ways that offend the truth?

Bodnar’s piece also fits hand-in-glove with the conception of Virginia as the “Energy Capital of the East Coast”, a slogan that would be out-and-out silly if the intent behind it were not so ominous for Southside’s future.

The bottom line with the uranium debate is that there’s nothing wrong with a good cop-bad cop strategy for beating back the influence of pro-mining interests.

Yes, by all means, let’s make the reasoned, evidence-based case that uranium mining is a bill of goods for Southside such as Katie Whitehead has so skillfully done.

But let’s also not forget that popular outrage is the only way you’re going to get politicians in Richmond to take notice of the underdogs in this battle.

Granting the value of civility doesn’t mean you have to shy away from rabble-rousing or the willingness to call bullspit when you see it.

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