Jun 18, 10:07 PM EDT
CHATHAM, Va. (AP) -- A multi-agency panel studying whether uranium can be safely mined in Virginia went to the epicenter of the environmental battle Monday and was met by a torrent of criticism.
Residents and environmentalists opposed to mining questioned the very existence of the Uranium Working Group, stating the $500,000 it had spent on consultants could have been better used.
"My question for you," asked Halifax County resident Jesse Andrews, "is how many qualified history teachers could be hired for $500,000? Why is uranium mining more important than the proper education of our children?"
Members of the working group looked on impassively, and occasionally with some bemusement, as speaker after speaker criticized how the panel was going about its business and told them uranium mining would be a bad thing for Southside Virginia. The working group held the meeting in Chatham in Pittsylvania County, home to a 119-million-pound deposit of the radioactive ore.
Gov. Bob McDonnell created the Uranium Working Group in January after he asked the General Assembly to delay any decision on ending a 30-year ban on mining the metal.
The meeting in Chatham High School included presentations from the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy; a state geologist and a consultant hired by the working group.
Cathie France of the State Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy, explained that the group intended to address questions raised by a raft of studies.
"We do not take position one way or the other whether the ban should be lifted," France said.
A coalition of environmental groups maintains the wet East Coast is a risky climate to mine uranium, most of which has been produced in mines in the arid southwest. They fear radioactive tailings - waste rock and ore from the processing of uranium - could be released into public drinking supplies during a hurricane packing torrential rains.
The audience nearly filled an auditorium with a seating capacity of 500. Of approximately 35 speakers, the great majority opposed mining.
Speakers scoffed at the openness of the working group, questioned the industry ties of the consultant group it hired, and generally opposed mining as a risk not worth taking.
An engineer and mining opponent, Jack Dunavant, asked the panel: "Why are we here?" He contended that no amount of oversight and regulation could ensure that uranium would not foul water supplies and farm fields.
"You cannot keep it out of the water. You can't keep it out of the air," Dunavant said.
Mining critics contend the NAS study should have been the final word on mining, and they question the need for the state study.
The uranium deposit is located within 30 miles of the North Carolina state line, and opposition has begun to organize in that state.
"The NC Coalition Against Uranium Mining encourages the governor of Virginia, the elected officials in the legislature and the uranium mining working group to do the right thing for all concerned citizens in Virginia and North Carolina and keep the ban on uranium mining in place," the group said in a statement issued before the meeting.
Steve Szkotak can be reached on Twitter at https://twitter.com/sszkotakap
Virginia Uranium Group: http://www.uwg.vi.virginia.gov/
Keep the Ban: http://keeptheban.org/