RICHMOND, Va. - Gov. Bob McDonnell has become the sole focus of the tug-of-war over uranium mining in Virginia now that the sponsor of a House bill that would establish mining regulations agreed to drop his legislation.
Delegate Jackson Miller said he's asked the chairman of the House Commerce and Labor Committee, Delegate Terry Kilgore, to not bring forward his legislation, meaning it will likely sit in committee past crossover day on Tuesday. Legislation that has a chance of passing must move from one chamber to the other by that day.
"He said if that's my wish, he's happy to do that," Miller, R- Manassas, said Friday.
Sen. John Watkins, a Powhatan Republican, is the leading advocate of uranium mining in the General Assembly. He withdrew his version of the legislation on Thursday with it facing almost certain defeat in committee and on the floor of the Senate. Watkins then asked McDonnell to direct state agencies to draw up regulations for the mining
The actions by Watkins and Miller shift what was expected to be a bruising battle in the General Assembly to squarely on McDonnell's shoulders. A spokesman said Friday the governor's position remained unchanged: he's still reviewing the issue.
Anti-mining activists who had been targeting key legislators with emails and telephone calls are now turning their lobbying effort to McDonnell. His office received dozens of calls by noon Friday, spokesman J. Tucker Martin said.
McDonnell's indecision has been curious for a Republican governor who has promoted U.S. energy independence and who has advocated an "all of the above" approach to achieve that _ from coal to offshore oil and winds.
Cale Jaffe, director of the Virginia office of the Southern Environmental Law Center, briefed McDonnell in December and was "impressed by his willingness to dig into the details of the issue" and his thoughtful questions.
"At this point, the studies have been done, and those studies _ particularly the peer-review National Academy of Sciences Study _ have validated a lot of our core concerns," Jaffe wrote in an email. "The science has shed a lot of light on this issue."
With the Legislature clearly not inclined to endorse uranium mining in Southside Virginia, the company that wants to tap the deposit endorsed what it called Watkins' "alternative path" to the governor's office.
"The legislation presented this year was lengthy and complex, but even so, did not address every detail that would ultimately be included in fully promulgated regulations," Patrick Wales, project manager for Virginia Uranium Inc., said in a statement.
The matter will still have to return to the General Assembly for approval, but not this year.
Watkins, who expressed similar sentiments in spiking his bill, has questioned McDonnell's silence on the issue. Miller said he has discussed the matter with the governor.
"He tells me he's evaluating it," he said. "I take him at his word. He doesn't really like to say much more than that."
Miller denied that the appeal to the governor is a backdoor effort to move uranium mining forward, as opponents have said. "They do stuff like this all the time _ Republican governors, Democratic governors."
Virginia Uranium is seeking an end to a state prohibition on uranium mining that dates back three decades. It requires that regulations be in place. The company wants to mine a 119-million-pound deposit of the ore in Pittsylvania County that it says will bring hundreds of jobs to a region that sorely needs them.
Opponents argue that the environmental and public health risks outweigh the economic advantages.
Steve Szkotak can be reached on Twitter at https://twitter.com/sszkotakap.
Virginia Uranium Inc.: http://www.virginiauranium.com/
Keep the Ban: http://keeptheban.org
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