Saturday, December 22, 2012

For McDonnell, uranium issue political and personal


Jeff E. Schapiro | Posted: Wednesday, December 19, 2012 12:00 am 
Last week, Gov. Bob McDonnell met privately with both sides in the mine-or-not-to-mine debate over uranium. On Thursday, he conferred for an hour with proponents. The next day, McDonnell sat down for about 90 minutes with opponents. The governor listened, participants said. He asked questions and laid out his options: urge a rollback of the 30-year ban on uranium mining, recommend keeping it place or punt, leaving the decision to election-jittery lawmakers.

The struggle over a proposed uranium mine and processing plant in sylvan Pittsylvania County is becoming a slog. It is a labor-intensive, time-consuming and expensive — particularly for supporters — legislator-by-legislator appeal for votes to jump-start a venture that, assuming prices for the radioactive ore hold up, could make some people rich and others richer.

Advocacy on this issue — for and against — is not just about what you know but whom you know. The closed sessions with McDonnell speak to that. So, too, does lobbying of sharply divided business and community leaders in Pittsylvania, where the mine and mill — depending on your perspective — is envisioned as an economic godsend or an environmental catastrophe.

Among proponents meeting with McDonnell was geologist Patrick Wales, the youthful face and voice of Virginia Uranium.

His is a disciplined message, occasionally punctuated by a tart flourish. Witness his rhetorical poke at Bill Bolling after McDonnell’s chief jobs-creation officer did a job on the project by backing a continued moratorium. And on a topic that’s become too emotional, Wales keeps the focus on the scientific, calmly telling Virginia Uranium’s story in terms a layman would understand.

McDonnell likely had little difficulty understanding the company’s other storyteller: lawyer-lobbyist Frank Atkinson, whose firm, McGuireWoods, is considered an adjunct of the governor’s office, supplying it with policies and people to carry them out.

At the Friday sit-down with the governor was Cale Jaffe, a lawyer for the Southern Environmental Law Center.

Jaffe may seem green — he is 40 but looks half his age — and is a green, preoccupied that uranium mining would imperil air and water. But increasingly his focus is whether a mine and mill could generate the wads of green supporters expect. Jaffe often talks about the gyrations of the global uranium market and what that might portend for the Pittsylvania site, including erratic production and a constant problem: control of radioactive waste.

That’s why Will Sessoms was in the room. His is a name that would immediately get McDonnell’s attention. Sessoms is the recently re-elected mayor of Virginia Beach, the state’s most populous city and the governor’s adoptive hometown. It was Virginia Beach where McDonnell broke into politics as a state legislator. It was as a state legislator that McDonnell backed a novel plan to keep drinking water flowing to Virginia Beach.

Since 1997, Virginia Beach has slaked its thirst with water pumped via pipeline from Lake Gaston, nearly 100 miles west in the heart of rural Southside. The lake is fed by the Bannister River, which snakes near the proposed mine in picturesque Chatham, another 70 miles on. Supposed technological safeguards notwithstanding, Virginia Beach fears that harmful taint from the mine would seep into Lake Gaston, threatening its water supply.

That may be a long shot, but even the perception poses a problem for McDonnell, who’s collected $12,000 in campaign contributions from Virginia Uranium.
But McDonnell won’t go anywhere if Virginia isn’t buttoned up for him.

Would it be if his name is synonymous with “unsafe” in Virginia Beach?

For McDonnell, that makes the uranium issue like so many others: political and personal.

Contact Jeff E. Schapiro at (804) 649-6814. His column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Watch his video column Thursday on Follow him on @RTDSchapiro. Listen to his analysis 8:33 a.m. Friday on WCVE (88.9 FM).