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A state divided: Uranium mining in Virginia?

Vast uranium deposits in Virginia could make for extremely profitable mining. Opponents fiercely argue mining could lead to an environmental disaster, or water contamination. Lawmakers are expected to take the matter up in this session.

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Supporters of mining say popular images of nuclear power and the crises at Chernobyl and most recently Fukushima in Japan have created a climate of fear involving anything radioactive, including uranium.

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"It's that enduring image of the mushroom cloud," said Andrea Jennetta, who publishes Fuel Cycle Weekly, which is aimed at uranium producers, buyers and government agencies. "People seem to be unable to separate that from any sort of peaceful or positive use."

Still others say to reject mining is contrary to the American can-do spirit. Lillian Gillespie, the former mayor of Pittsylvania County's largest town, Hurt, is of that school. She left her native state of West Virginia to pursue a higher paying job with a furniture manufacturer.

"We've sent men to the moon and brought them back," she said. "I just believe we as a nation, as a state and a county can do something like this."

Wales, the public face of Virginia Uranium and project manager for the company, is a native of nearby Danville and describes the issue as "personal and moral." The Coles family, he notes, would continue to live on the property if mining was allowed.

"We drink the water. Our children play in these fields," Wales said. "We have the highest stake as well in ensuring that this is done in an environmentally friendly way."

Legislation has been submitted in the House of Delegates and the Senate to establish regulations for uranium mining, which would in effect end the 1982 moratorium and allow Virginia Uranium to move forward to tap the deposit.

While many expect a close vote, few are willingly to publicly venture a guess on the outcome. That's because the issue defies party politics, geography and traditional alliances. Public sentiment provides little guidance to lawmakers; statewide polling shows residents divided down the middle.

Gov. Bob McDonnell, who has been mentioned as a possible Republican presidential candidate in 2016 and has made energy development a cornerstone of his administration, has yet to take a position or say whether he will. But his lieutenant governor, fellow Republican Bruce Bolling, has stated he's opposed to mining. His position could be critical because he casts the deciding vote in the Senate when a tie vote occurs, and the Senate appears to be closely divided on uranium.

Ultimately, the decision could rest with the Pittsylvania County Board of Supervisors, which would have to change Cole Hill's agricultural zoning. Last Wednesday, the board voted 5-1 for a nonbinding resolution supporting the moratorium on uranium mining.

Virginia Uranium has made it clear it will be back in 2014 if its heavily financed lobbying effort this session falls short. "We've got a $7 billion project," Wales said at a recent forum on uranium mining. "Do you really think we're going to give up and walk away?"

The same holds true for the opponents, who have hinted at litigation if mining is approved. Opposition is also stirring in North Carolina, which has an interest in mutually shared water resources across the state lines.

"We do share the waterway and we live downstream from this issue," said Mike Pucci, a former pharmaceutical executive who has a home on the shore of Lake Gaston. He said Virginia Uranium should be mindful of a future class action if mining moves ahead.

"This is not a threat. This is just reality," he said.

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

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