Uranium Money Spreads Across Virginia in Radioactive Debate

Uranium Money Spreads Across Virginia in Radioactive Debate

Upcoming General Assembly session to feature effort to lift ban on uranium mining.

Virginia's Capitol in Richmond.

Virginia's Capitol in Richmond. Photo by Michael Lee Pope.

Uranium Money

Chatham-based Virginia Uranium, Inc., has invested more than $52,000 this year in campaign contributions across Virginia:

  • $7,500 to the Republican Campaign Committee for House of Delegates
  • $5,000 to the Virginia Republican Senate Caucus
  • $5,000 to the Majority Leader PAC
  • $5,000 to Dominion Leadership Trust
  • $5,000 to Sen. Ryan McDougle (R-4)
  • $2,500 to Del. Todd Gilbert (R-15)
  • $2,500 to the Democratic Party Commonwealth Victory Fund
  • $2,500 to Del. Jackson Miller (R-50)
  • $2,500 to Del. Onzlee Ware (D-11)
  • $2,500 Del. Greg Habeeb (R-8)
  • $1,500 for Del. Steven Landes (R-25)
  • $1,000 for Del. Jimmie Massie (R-72)
  • $1,000 for Del. Dickie Bell (R-20)
  • $1,000 for Del. Mike Watson (R-93)
  • $1,000 for Del. Will Morefield (R-3)
  • $1,000 for Sen. Toddy Puller (D-36)
  • $1,000 for Del. Brenda Pogge (R-96)
  • $1,000 for Sen. Kenneth Alexander (D-5)
  • $1,000 for Del. Matt Fariss (R-59)
  • $500 for Del. Joseph Yost (R-67)
  • $500 for Del. James LeMunyon (R-67)
  • $500 for Del. Ben Cline (R-24)
  • $500 for Del. Jeion Ward (D-92)
  • $500 for Del. Tag Greason (R-32)
  • $500 for Del. Algie Howell (D-90)

source: Virginia Public Access Project

The uranium deposits under the farmlands of Pittsylvania County are miles away from Northern Virginia, but the debate about what happens there is shaping up to be one of the hottest issues of the upcoming General Assembly session. In the last year, Chatham-based Virginia Uranium, Inc., has invested more than $52,000 in campaign contributions across the commonwealth as part of a lobbying effort to persuade legislators to tap the largest undeveloped uranium deposit in the nation.

“I told them I would take their money, but that I haven’t made up my mind,” said state Sen. Toddy Puller (D-36), who received $1,000 from Virginia Uranium. “There seems to be more people that are lobbying for it. I am certain that the environmentalists will weigh in against it, but they haven’t started doing that yet.”

A recent study by the George Mason Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University concluded that overturning the longstanding ban on uranium mining in Virginia would bring more than $1 million to Pittsylvania County, adding about 2 percent to the county’s revenue base. The study concluded net fiscal benefit would be equivalent to a reduction of 4 cents on the tax rate. Virginia Uranium financed the study with a $147,000 contribution to the George Mason University Foundation.

“They certainly didn’t tell us what to say,” said Stephen Fuller, director of the Center for Regional Analysis. “Although they did edit our work a bit when we had some missspellings.”

For supporters of uranium mining, the financial analsysis makes a strong case for helping a part of Virginia that’s struggling to emerge from the global economic crisis. Statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show the unemployment rate in Pittsylvania is 6.7 percent, which is higher than the statewide average of 5.6 percent.

“I don’t disagree with the fact that this portion of the state needs economic development,” said Del. Rob Krupicka (D-45). “But I also think that folks shouldn’t have to sacrifice the health of their water or the long-term health of their community for jobs.”

FOR MORE THAN 30 years, Virginia has banned uranium mining in the commonwealth. Last year, Virginia Uranium tried to overturn that ban to begin mining a vast resource in Pittslvania County, a southside community that borders North Carolina. But Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell intervened, asking legislators to take no action in 2012. Instead, the governor initiated a study of the issue by a newly created multi-agency state working group including secretaries of Natural Resources, Commerce and Trade and Health and Human Resources. The working group will conduct its final public meeting today in Richmond.

“Public safety must be the primary factor in the ultimate determination as to whether to proceed with uranium mining,” McDonnell said in a written statement. “While uranium mining could mean the creation of high-paying jobs for our citizens, a boost for the important nuclear power industry, increased economic development for the region and the generation of significant tax revenue for the entire commonwealth, we must prudently study the issue to ensure that such mining would not impair the health of our people or the condition of the environment.”

Environmental groups have been critical of uranium mining because of concerns over a radioactive byproduct known as “tailings,” a sand-like substance left over after the uranium is milled. Some legislators say they are concerned that the radioactive byproduct could flow downstream into the Hampton Roads area. That means Pittslvania County could see the economic benefits while the Hampton Roads area has to deal with the pollution.

“I don’t want to sell the public health at any price,” said state Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-30). “We should be serious about other kinds of economic development besides dirty energy.”

THE BAN WAS originally enacted in 1982, although supporters say technological advances have made the practice of mining for uranium much safer than it used to be. One idea under discussion involves burying the tailings where they found, which could prevent the radioactive material from travelling downstream. Ultimately, though, the debate this year will be about overturning the ban. If that happens, the details about how the mining process would work would be dealt with in a future session.

“Contrary to popular belief, the vote — if we have it this year — is not whether to mine uranium or not,” said Del. David Albo (R-42). “It’s to lift the ban so they can present plans on how they are going to do it.”

Legislators say they have been lobbied heavily on the issue, and they expect the debate to be one of the hottest issues in the upcoming session. Virginia Uranium has 19 lobbyists registered from five different firms, an indication that the company is eager to present their case as forcefully as possible. An analysis from the Virginia Public Access Project shows that 15 percent of the company’s campaign contributions have gone to Democrats while 84 percent of donations have gone to Republicans.

“Democrats have a tendency to be more opposed to it because of the possible environmental effects, but there are also Republicans who are not exactly robust in their support of it for the same reason,” said Geoff Skelley. “So far, the environmental concerns have outweighed the possible economic benefits, but that could obviously change if the lobbying efforts have some effect.”

The governor’s uranium working group is scheduled to present its findings to the Coal and Energy Commission on Dec. 1.