VIRGINIA’S DILEMMA: The reality of what happened to offshore drilling and the uranium proposal of 2007.
Two major Virginia natural resource action proposals got national visibility in recent years: offshore oil and gas drilling, and a proposal for uranium mining. Both initiatives involved resource as well as policy issues of significant magnitude. Both were objects of detailed, well-motivated reports by Virginia’s legislature. Both became mired in controversy and sank out of sight without Virginia’s general public really understanding the issues, how Virginia would oversee proposed operations, and the background to opposition that ultimately killed the initiatives.
This report takes a critical look at the uranium mining issue. Regardless of whether one starts with a negative or positive attitude toward uranium mining, the emerging events tell a hard-to-avoid story. Virginia’s current political structure is incapable of providing objective and credible professional assessment, useful public information, and oversight or coordinated management of major natural resource recovery operations. The reason is that the state government’s existing system is politicized. This virtually guarantees inability to provide responsive and independent evaluation and oversight that can gain public trust – especially where sensitive environmental issues are involved, while treating potential operating organizations proactively and fairly.
Virginia could change a condition that is dysfunctional and frustrating to both environmentally concerned people as well as elected officials and enterprises interested in developing Virginia’s natural resources. Suggested steps briefly offered in this report would involve a combination of structural reform and emphasis on the integrity of the primary oversight agency. No laws, regulations, or technical procedures can substitute for the latter.
URANIUM MINING DEVELOPMENTS, 2007-2012
In 2007 interest in lifting a 30‐year old moratorium on mining uranium in Virginia arose. The stakes were big. The Coles Hill area has the largest undeveloped uranium deposits in the nation. It could supply a significant proportion of the uranium needed for the U.S. nuclear energy industry – 92% of which is now imported. But a final report delivered by the Governor’s Uranium Working Group in 2012 only increased mounting opposition to mining. It became clear that Virginia’s system for handling natural resource initiatives associated with environmental sensitivities was inadequate. A legislative proposal to remove the 30-year old moratorium on uranium mining was withdrawn. During 2013 reports about renewed interest in uranium mining emerged, but action would have little chance at meaningful consideration under present conditions.
Uranium mining ran into trouble because: 1) responsibility to advise on action was given to elected politicians and their appointees who, without prejudice to their efforts, lacked relevant scientific and professional expertise and ability to render independent judgment; 2) the voluminous advisory reports left the key questions and issues of prime concern to the public and environmental groups unresolved.
This paper respectfully recommends to Governor-elect McAuliffe that he initiate bipartisan exploration of fundamental changes that could promote citizen confidence in and more effective management of Virginia’s natural resources, not limited to uranium.
The key recommendation is that the current office of Secretary of Natural Resources be transformed from a political position (answering to the Governor) to a qualified professional office. It would have responsibilities and missions decided by the legislature and governor, but be insulated from outside pressures in performing scientific evaluations and other functions by having independent civil service status. It should be authorized to develop cooperative agreements with federal agencies.
Virginia’s uranium resources
The Coles Hill area in Pittsylvania County holds the largest undeveloped uranium deposit in the U.S., with approximately 120 million pounds of estimated reserves having a gross value of around $6 billion at current uranium oxide (U3O8) prices (~$50/lb.). The U.S. may be the only advanced nation in the world that would allow such a large resource to stay under moratorium for 30 years while the nation imported 92% of uranium needed by its nuclear power industry. A breakthrough in mining operations and oversight achieved in such a way as to gain public confidence would also help lift the existing depressed state of mining in the United States – a desirable and necessary activity for a nation like the U.S. Advanced mining and associated technologies have important spinoff benefits for handling waste materials, cleanup of brownfields, and other activities in which leadership has moved abroad.
In 2007 exploration at Coles Hill resumed under license from the Virginia Dept. of Mines, Minerals and Energy. Local owners formed Virginia Uranium, Inc. in cooperation with a Canadian mining company. The Uranium Subcommittee of the Virginia Legislature’s Commission on Coal and Energy requested a report from the National Academy of Science, and explored lifting of the moratorium.
Uranium has a low level of radioactivity. For short exposure it has about the same toxicity as lead. The main concern lies in solid radioactive daughter products, primarily radium (226Ra) and radium’s gaseous decay product, radon (222Rn) that build up over time in tailings deposits and associated pore waters. These radionuclides are alpha emitters that are hazardous (cancer risk) if breathed or ingested.
The Town of Virginia Beach gets water supplies from reservoirs that could be affected by radioactive daughter products of uranium, should there be leakage from mine tailings disposal sites (see location map). The Town commissioned or otherwise received a series of reports that provide an overview of uranium mining and regional data for Virginia. These reports include slide shows providing useful background for the general public.
Map showing previous uranium leases in the Coles Hill area and waterways in south-central – western Virginia and northern North Carolina, from Town of Virginia Beach online documents.
See website: http://www.vbgov.com/government/departments/public-utilities/pages/uranium-mining.aspx
The Governor and the Virginia legislature’s actions
The legislature earlier created a Uranium Subcommittee of the Commission on Coal and Energy. The subcommittee requested a report from the National Academy of Sciences, which was published in 2011, along with a consulting expert’s report. On January 18, 2012, Governor Robert McDonnell appointed an additional Uranium Working Group made up of staff of the Departments of Public Health, Mines, Minerals and Energy, and Environmental Quality, three of the six agencies under the Secretary of Natural Resources, and citizens. The UWG was authorized to get outside assistance for its report, and two RFP’s were released.
The two Virginia working groups chose qualified consultant groups that included individuals familiar with Canadian uranium mining and regulatory procedures. Advisory group members visited Saskatchewan uranium mining areas to get hands–‐on exposure to mining, waste disposal, hazard, and other issues. The final report of the UWG produced a large amount of background research in a short time. Consultant reports included state and U.S. federal regulatory systems and policies in considerable detail. The 345‐page National Academy of Sciences report confirmed the commercial viability of the Coles Hill deposits and provided an exhaustive overview of radioactivity–‐related and other potential problems associated with mining. But it did not get into operational or organizational detail applicable to the Virginia case.
The state advisory bodies’ reports contained voluminous documentation. However, groups and people continued to join opposition led by the Piedmont Environmental Council, Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club, and Southern Environmental Law Center. That things were not going well was brought home by the fact that Governor McDonald’s election partner, Lieutenant Governor Bill Bolling, and some business groups also registered opposition to lifting the moratorium. Ultimately, Senator John Watkins, a Vice Chair of the Uranium Subcommittee and initiator of a proposal that would have lifted the moratorium, withdrew it.
Virginia is left with the 30 year–old moratorium that says, in effect
“We are scared of uranium. We don’t trust our state system to evaluate proposals that involve hazards. We prefer to shut everything down until a new law details procedures to manage uranium mining safely“
WHAT’S WRONG WITH THE CURRENT SYSTEM?
The Dept. of Mines, Minerals and Energy licenses traditional mining and other natural resource activities. It does so in cooperation with other agencies under the Secretary of Natural Resources. This system may have worked reasonably well and with minimum bureaucracy for well-established normal operation. However, large and controversial initiatives such as offshore drilling and the uranium mining proposal have been handled by legislative committees and commissions, supplemented by advisory bodies appointed by the Governor.
The appointed bodies were not asked to judge advisability of uranium mining, but provide policy guidance for the General Assembly. The Uranium Working Group said that detailed regulations would have to be developed by the Departments of Mines, Minerals and Energy (DMME), and Environmental Quality. As mentioned previously the Subcommittee on Uranium requested and obtained a study by the National Academy of Science on the uranium mining issue. But the report did not provide hands-on practical guidance on how best to evaluate and develop practical answers to the questions facing Virginia.
A major problem was that the advisory bodies were composed of elected political officials, their appointees, and state employees from agencies whose leaders serve at the pleasure of the governor. They lacked formal expertise or experience with the complex problems involved in mining uranium. Though they showed discretion in choice of consultants and labored diligently, the process did not gain public confidence.
The advisory bodies’ “start from scratch” approaches left priority questions unresolved.
The advisory groups were not authorized to make definitive recommendations about mining. What the reports delivered was a daunting array of complex background data, descriptions of potential hazards, state and federal permitting and regulatory procedures, etc. They offered no clear pathway for action by the General Assembly. The provision in the existing moratorium that a new law prescribing regulatory guidelines would be needed prior to initiation of mining was also left to future resolution. An earlier draft bill was left untouched. There was something of an air of unreality about state advisory bodies embarking on “start-from” scratch addresses to mining of a commodity for which the federal government and private industry already had a sixty-year operational and regulatory history.
Capabilities of the operating company were not established
A prime concern is the disposal of uranium‐enriched tailings under Virginia’s conditions of rainfall, groundwater, and occasional floods. This contrasts with arid western environments of previous and existing mining areas. One might have expected Virginia Uranium Inc. to describe its expertise and offer an indication of techniques for dealing with uranium in Virginia’s unconventional setting for uranium deposits. But the Company merely cited the state advisory documents and indicated that it would develop operating strategies in the future. [http://www.virginiauranium.com/]. Since the company provided no technical detail advisory group consultants had to use hypothetical operational procedures for predictive models.
Failure to consider public reception of the reports
The public is not equipped to interpret detail about uranium mining, hazards, legal and regulatory procedures, reports of hearings, etc. in the thousands of pages in the UWG report and cited references. It and especially environmental organizations clearly lacked confidence in plans that offered no indication of state management systems, lines of authority, professional competence, and priority attention to the problem of mining in Virginia’s special environment should mining take place.
SUGGESTIONS FOR REFORM OF VIRGINIA’S SYSTEM FOR MANAGING NATURAL RESOURCES
Laws and regulatory provisions can prohibit or make approval so difficult that they in effect exclude initiatives like uranium mining. What they cannot assure alone is safe and effective operation. Only well-qualified, competent operators and knowledgeable and conscientious oversight agencies can do that.
An authoritative agency head is needed to interface with the public and legislature. The office must be able to make assessments and explain and justify balanced policies and decisions in the face of political pressure or economic inducements on the one hand, and exaggerated fears or claims on the other. The town of Virginia Beach actually offered more useful and intelligible background data and summaries of the pros and cons of uranium mining than did state agencies.
Beyond technical qualifications, the agency leader needs balance and rock‐like integrity. Such persons exist but must be searched for. They are unlikely to be among candidates in normal short lists for state appointments. A new reform opportunity in Virginia should be attractive to qualifying individuals.
Norway’s large and highly effective oil and gas industry, co‐located offshore with Norway’s major fishing industry, is an example of successful management of a potentially hazardous activity. The responsible agency is the Norwegian Petroleum Directorate. Its founding Chief retired in 2004 after more than 34 years of service. Prior to the major federal environmental laws of the 1970s a number of states like Texas (Texas Railroad Commission), Kansas (Kansas Geological Survey) and Illinois and Wisconsin environmental protection agencies exercised effective and respected oversight over natural resource and environmental activities.
To recruit and retain agency leaders with competence, experience, and integrity, who can exercise scientific and operational judgment independently of external pressures a state needs to provided civil service status and tenure after a trial period. This means that they individuals cannot be arbitrarily replaced or pressured by political leaders or outside groups.
Many people will ask: could we really trust agencies and officials? The answer is yes if agencies and people with integrity are prioritized. But they can’t survive in a politicized system such as currently exists. Politicization doesn’t mean that governors or legislators have bad intentions. But it does not provide the necessary buffer and protection that is required.
Virginia needs an agency empowered to coordinate agreements with federal science and regulatory agencies.
In both the case of offshore drilling and uranium mining it would be unreasonable to expect Virginia’s state government to provide the in-depth expertise and oversight capability for such complex activities alone. The resource management agency should be authorized and qualified to develop partnerships with federal agencies and other states, and seek expert assistance from federal agencies. But it ought to have the skills to work out agreements that allow for maximum input from the state. It should not share in revenues from activities that it oversees, in order to avoid conflict of interest. But it should be able to seek funding for research, cooperation, and supporting activities from federal sources.
Virginia is a state with a tradition of consistent internal management except in the case of major natural resources. A new governor and the current narrow balance between political parties offer the opportunity to set in motion planning for a modernized natural resource management structure. A competent system that inspires trust could also help inform and guide proposers or framers of new or modified legislation. It would help the state evaluate and make proactive and prudent decisions about future activities and operations, moving them from outcomes determined by lobbying and opposition campaigns to open analysis and consensual decisionmaking. Success in achieving such goals could make Virginia a model for dealing with environmental and natural resource issues at a time when there is conflict, paralysis and gridlock in federal environmental and resource policy.
Technical Report on the Coles Hill Uranium Deposits by Peter A. Christopher, Geological and Engineering Consultant: http://www.imcc.isa.us/ColesHillUranium.pdf
Virginia Uranium Mining, Inc., home page: http://www.virginiauranium.com/
Summary of concerns by the Southern Environmental Law Center, taken from the National Academy of Science Report, Uranium Mining In Virginia (2012):http://www.southernenvironment.org/uploads/fck/file/uranium/summary_key_findings_NAS_report.pdf
Virginia Beach Uranium Mining Impact Study, 2011:http://www.vbgov.com/government/departments/public-utilities/pages/uranium-mining.aspx
Includes appendix of 16 relevant studies
Commonwealth Of Virginia 2012 Uranium Working Group Report,http://www.uwg.vi.virginia.gov/pdf/UWG%20Report%20-%20FINAL%2030Nov2012.pdf