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Opponents: Va. uranium bill doomed in committee

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RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Opponents of uranium mining in Virginia said Tuesday they have the votes in a Senate committee to block legislation that would effectively end a decades-old state moratorium on mining the radioactive ore.

"I'd say that it appears that the other side is handing over the white flag for this bill," said May Fox of the Virginia Coalition, a group representing businesses in Southside Virginia.

Bill Axselle Jr. of the anti-mining Alliance for Progress in Southern Virginia agreed that Sen. John Watkins' bill would be handily defeated in committee Thursday. Both said mining supporters are scrambling to salvage something this session.

"We don't know exactly how it will be done," Axselle said.

Fox said, "There's still mischief to be done."

Watkins, a Powhatan Republican, did not immediately return a message left with his office by The Associated Press.

The Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee is scheduled to hear his legislation. It would create regulations to oversee uranium mining, which has never taken place on a large scale in the East. Some committee members have already publicly expressed opposition to the bill.

"I can assure you, they do not have the 21 votes to get that bill out of the Senate," said Democratic Sen. Don McEachin, a committee member.

Companion legislation has been filed in the House of Delegates, but its sponsor, Delegate Jackson Miller, R-Manassas, has deferred to Watkins.

Virginia Uranium Inc. wants the General Assembly to end the 1982 mining ban so it can tap a 119-million-pound deposit of the ore in Pittsylvania County that it values at $7 billion.

VUI's project manager, Patrick Wales, deferred to lawmakers to comment on the fate of the legislation, but he said in a statement: "This is a long process, we've always known that."

The company has said the mine would create more than 300 jobs in the economically struggling region of the state and can be done safely.

Its proposal, however, has been opposed by a wide array of interests: farm groups, civil rights organizations, business associations, environmentalists and municipal groups.

"These entities don't normally agree with each other but they're all unanimous in opposition," Axselle said.

The crafting of legislation that limits mining to Virginia Uranium and the deposit in Pittsylvania County also hasn't won any fans, he said.

"It's not consistent with the good statewide approach balancing the risks and rewards," Axselle said. "I think everybody who's looked at this have said the rewards are few, the risks are many."

Opponents contend the storage of waste from the uranium's processing would pose a risk for generations and threaten public water supplies. Virginia Uranium has said its below-grade storage would minimize risks.

Watkins' legislation got off to a bad start when it was assigned to Senate Agriculture instead of his preferred committee, commerce, which is believed to be more favorable to uranium mining.

The Virginia Farm Bureau Federation, the state's agriculture lobby, took a stand against uranium mining in December.

Sen. Emmett Hanger, an Augusta County Republican and chair of Senate agriculture, declined to speculate how his committee would vote Thursday. He suggested pro-mining senators would work to keep the issue alive; if not in this session, then in 2014.

"There is a lot of push to lift the moratorium and some want to move the ball forward a bit," he said. "I'm not sure we're going to do that or not, quite frankly."

The proposal has been the subject of a raft of studies, including one by a National Academy of Sciences panel. It concluded the state would be challenged to create regulations to ensure safe mining and milling.

Cale Jaffe, director of the Virginia office of the Southern Environmental Law Center, said the study made a convincing case against mining, which he predicted would fail in the full Senate if it got that far.

"Folks have read the studies and the legislation and they've concluded this is a bad idea and this is a bad bill," he said.

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Steve Szkotak can be reached on Twitter at https://twitter.com/sszkotakap.

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Online:

Virginia Uranium Inc.: http://www.virginiauranium.com/

Keep the Ban: http://keeptheban.org/

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