Monday, December 17, 2012

Bolling: Uranium mining is not worth the risk


Bill Bolling | Posted: Sunday, December 16, 2012 12:00 am 

Over the past year much has been written about the proposal to lift the ban on uranium mining and milling in Virginia. Advocates on both sides of this debate have done an effective job advocating their point of view. I have listened carefully to this debate, and after a great deal of consideration I have come to a decision:

I believe the Virginia General Assembly should maintain the ban on uranium mining in Virginia.
For the past three years I have had the privilege of serving as Virginia’s chief jobs creation officer. This has been the most enjoyable and rewarding role I have played during my 22-year political career.

There are few things more rewarding than helping recruit a new business to Virginia or encouraging an existing business to expand. To do this we must aggressively protect our state’s reputation as a great place to live and do business.

Our first responsibility is to create a better environment for economic development in all regions of the commonwealth, with a focus on those regions of our state — like Southern Virginia — that are still struggling.

It is this concern for preserving our progress in building a new and more dynamic economy in Southern Virginia that has led to my opposition to uranium mining.

Since January of 2007 there have been 90 business expansions and relocations in Southern Virginia, resulting in almost $600 million in new investment and creating almost 6,500 new jobs. Many of these jobs are the kind of knowledge-based, high-value positions that can have a transformational impact in Southern Virginia.

I am concerned that removing the ban on uranium mining could have a chilling effect on the economic progress we are making in this important region of our state. The success of our ongoing job creation efforts is too great to take the risk of adding a uranium mining operation to the equation.
Prominent leaders of numerous businesses in the region have told me that removing the ban on uranium mining could have devastating short- and long-term impacts on their businesses.

In addition, a well-recognized member of a local Economic Development Authority has publicly expressed his belief that recruiting new businesses to the region could become significantly more difficult with an active uranium mining operation in the area.

Even one minor environmental incident at the potential mine site could confirm the concerns of the region’s business leaders about the safety and efficacy of uranium mining and significantly jeopardize our efforts to grow the region’s economy.

That brings me to my second concern — the potential environmental impacts of uranium mining.

Even though two well-respected organizations have completed reviews of the efficacy of removing the ban on uranium mining, there are still many unanswered questions regarding the potential impact that an incident at the mine might have on the environment and, subsequently, citizens in Southern Virginia and beyond.

I am concerned that there is no clear precedent for an active uranium mining and milling facility that operates in an area with as much rainfall and with the water table as close to the surface as is the case with the proposed mine in Southern Virginia.

Perhaps the biggest cause for concern is related to the long-term storage of the radioactive by-product of uranium milling called tailings. These tailings can maintain their radioactive characteristics for thousands of years. Unfortunately, there is continuing uncertainty as to how these tailings would ultimately be stored.

The National Academy of Sciences study was very clear on this point. The report noted that Virginia’s climate is prone to frequent storms that produce intense rainfall, making it questionable whether the technology exists to prevent erosion and potential surface and groundwater contamination for the thousands of years during which these tailings can remain radioactive.

The NAS report concluded that a failure of a tailings facility could lead to significant health and environmental impacts. That gives me and many other Virginians pause. This is why localities from Halifax County to Virginia Beach have all expressed concerns for the safety of their water supply if the ban on uranium mining is lifted.

While one can review the environmental reports and reach different conclusions on the likelihood of such an event, these are legitimate concerns and the risk of an environmental incident of this nature is too great to take.

Finally, I am impressed by the fact that almost every member of the Southern Virginia delegation of the General Assembly is opposed to removing the ban on uranium mining and milling in Virginia.

These legislators represent the people who would be most directly impacted by a uranium mining operation, and their agreement on an issue which is so important to their region makes a very powerful statement.

It is also noteworthy that the local business community, through the Danville Pittsylvania County Chamber of Commerce, has expressed its support for keeping the ban on uranium mining.

If the people in this community, who stand to gain the most from uranium mining and milling, have determined that the ban should stay in place, the sensible decision must be to keep the ban in place.

The advocates for uranium mining make a compelling argument in support of the potential economic impact of a successful mining operation. But in the end, there are just too many unanswered questions.

When you combine the impact that a uranium mine might have on economic development, the environmental concerns expressed by some of the country’s foremost scientists, and the strong local opposition to lifting the ban on uranium mining, a clear picture emerges.

The ban on uranium mining and milling in Virginia should remain in place.

Bill Bolling, a Republican, is the lieutenant governor of Virginia. He also serves as the commonwealth’s chief jobs creation officer.