RICHMOND, Va. - Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling announced his opposition Friday to uranium mining and milling in Virginia, citing the potential to slow business and job growth in Southside Virginia and concerns about its environmental impact.
The announcement, delivered in Danville with business leaders, is significant because Bolling is Gov. Bob McDonnell's jobs creation chief and proponents of mining have cited its potential to create hundreds of jobs. He also casts the tie-breaking vote in the Virginia Senate. The General Assembly is expected to take up the state's 30-year ban on uranium mining in the 2013 session.
Bolling, a Republican, said he has followed the fierce debate over uranium mining and has "come to the conclusion that the Virginia General Assembly should maintain the ban on uranium mining and milling in Virginia."
"First, I am concerned that removing this ban could have a chilling impact on our efforts to recruit new business, industry and jobs to southern Virginia, and it could also have a harmful impact on numerous existing businesses in the region," Bolling said in prepared remarks provided to The Associated Press. Mining, he said, could undermine efforts to revitalize a Southside economy that has suffered amid the decline of tobacco, furniture manufacturing and textiles.
The argument counters the job creation and revenues Virginia Uranium Inc. has cited as it has lobbied hard to end the 1982 mining moratorium.
In a statement, Virginia Uranium complained that Bolling has refused its invitation to tour the so-called Coles Hill site of the uranium deposit and attempts to brief him on the scientific and technical aspects of its mining and milling plan.
"We took Lt. Gov. Bolling at his word when he claimed to support the expansion of Virginia's nuclear power sector and an `all of the above' approach to energy policy," Patrick Wales, the company's project manager, said in a statement. He added that Bolling is "clearly pursuing a `some of the above' energy policy that is the antithesis of free enterprise and free markets."
Besides the economic impact, Bolling said he has "too many unanswered questions" about how the mining and processing of the ore would potentially affect the environment.
Finally, Bolling said the Southside Virginia delegation to the General Assembly supports the ban, as does the local Chamber of Commerce.
"If political and business leaders in the region that would benefit the most from uranium mining believe the ban should stay in place, politicians in Richmond should not lift the ban against their wishes," Bolling said.
Virginia Uranium wants to operate what would be the first full-fledged uranium mining operation east of the Mississippi. It wants to tap what is the largest known deposit of the ore in the U.S. and one of the largest in the world. It maintains the mining, the separation of ore from rock and the storage of waste for generations can be conducted safely.
Opponents, however, argue that Virginia's wet, storm-prone environment is ill-suited for a mining industry that has been centered primarily in the arid southwest. They fear a release of uranium-laced tailings, or waste, could foul public water supplies for residents as far away as Hampton Roads and farm fields.
Bolling announced in November he would not be seeking his party's nomination for governor, leaving Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli the presumptive nominee. Bolling, however, has not ruled out an independent run for governor.
McDonnell, also a Republican, said he has not formed a position yet on uranium mining.
Sen. John Watkins, R-Powhatan, has proposed legislation to lay the regulatory framework for uranium mining. He said he was disappointed by Bolling's opposition.
"The legislation I am working on is not even complete and may very well address his concerns," Watkins said in a statement. "I would have expected a more thoughtful approach to this issue from Bill given his commitment to creating jobs, particularly in Southside."
Steve Szkotak can be reached on Twitter at https://twitter.com/sszkotakap.
Uranium Working Group: http://www.uwg.vi.virginia.gov/
Virginia Uranium Inc.: http://www.virginiauranium.com/
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