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Uranium project comes with steep regulatory price

Uranium Working Group presents findings in Chatham; area chamber comes out against mining

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    Uranium Mining Subcommittee members Delegates Lee Ware Jr., Terry Kilgore and Don Merricks listen to answers to their questions during a Joint Meeting of the Virginia Commission on Coal and Energy and the Uranium Mining Subcommittee on Dec. 11 in Chatham. (Steven Mantilla/ Danville Register & Bee)

Posted: Tuesday, December 11, 2012 8:06 pm | Updated: 7:42 am, Mon Jan 14, 2013.

CHATHAM — A few audience members groaned after hearing about the layers of bureaucracy that will be needed to regulate uranium mining and milling in Virginia at the final meeting of the Uranium Working Group.

The group presented its findings to members of the Uranium Mining Subcommittee of the Coal and Energy Commission on Tuesday in Chatham.

Also on Tuesday, the Danville Pittsylvania Chamber of Commerce issued its position on the issue, supporting Virginia’s 1982 moratorium on uranium mining.

“The board of directors of the Danville Pittsylvania County Chamber of Commerce believes there are still too many questions and uncertainties that could have negative irreversible consequences on our region …” the chamber said in its position statement.

In January, Gov. Bob McDonnell formed the Uranium Working Group to create a draft regulatory framework for uranium mining and milling. The working group did not make a recommendation on whether to lift the moratorium on uranium mining and milling.

To lift the moratorium, the state needs to be directed to create a uranium mining statute and regulations. Sen. John Watkins, R-Powhatan, said he will offer that legislation when the session convenes in January.

Cathie France, chair of the Uranium Work Group and the deputy director for energy policy at the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy summarized the working groups’ findings.

France explained the layers of bureaucracy that will be needed if the moratorium is lifted, including new authorities granted to the Virginia Department of Health to investigate human exposures and health outcomes, and establish water quality standards for private wells in the area of the mine or mill. They also need the authority to condemn wells that exceed regulatory standards.

France also said financial assurance is imperative, should a cleanup ever be necessary.

“It’s a critical part of the statutory framework and should be funded by the operator ... to make sure the taxpayer would never be liable,” France said.

A number of new staff would need to be put in place immediately to evaluate applications and approve licenses. The state would have to initially bear the cost. Additional staff and resources would be required; the Department of Environmental Quality would need four full-time employees for environmental permitting, compliance and monitoring, which would cost approximately $800,000 a year in personnel, administrative and equipment costs.

“Eventually, those costs could be covered through the mine permit and licensing fees we would require,” France said.

France also updated the subcommittee on the progress of the socioeconomic study, which will not be submitted to the working group until Jan. 15, after the General Assembly convenes.

The study will look at potential business impacts created by uranium mining and milling, and will gauge perception regarding the influence of mining and milling on economic development. Telephone surveys are being done with Virginia’s business leaders, 20 percent in Southside and the remaining 80 percent from other areas across the state.

Larry Camper, director of the Division of Waste Management and Environmental Protection for the Nuclear Energy Commission, explained the Nuclear Regularity Commission’s role in uranium milling regulation.

If Virginia does not become an agreement state for the purposes of milling, the commission would regulate uranium milling (being an “agreement state” means the state, not the federal government, regulates an activity).

The commission’s Division of Waste Management and Environmental Protection oversees environmental review, low-level radioactive waste and mine decommissioning, among other responsibilities — but the commission does not regulate uranium mining.

Camper advised that there would be “several opportunities along the way” for comment during the construction of the environmental impact statement, plus a chance for a legal (non-public) hearing.

He said the environmental impact statement would cost $2 million and require two to three full-time employees.

Camper also detailed the steps Virginia would need to take to become an agreement state, starting with a letter of intent from Gov. McDonnell to the Nuclear Regularity Commission and the development of a draft regulatory program.

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