RICHMOND, Va. - The Virginia Farm Bureau Federation is backing the continuation of the state's 30-year ban on uranium mining, concluding that the mining and milling of the radioactive ore is a threat to Virginia's multibillion dollar agricultural industry.
The stand by the influential farm lobby, reached this week at its annual meeting in northern Virginia, is sure to resonate at the Capitol if the General Assembly decides to consider ending the ban in the 2013 session so a mining company can tap a 119-milllion-pound uranium deposit in Pittsylvania County. The Farm Bureau has 88 bureaus throughout the state and represents more than 146,000 farm families.
"When this is in the General Assembly, we will be opposed to lifting the moratorium," Andrew W. Smith, senior assistant director of governmental relations, told The Associated Press on Thursday.
Smith said the "grassroots" vote reflecting the wishes of local farm bureaus was approved overwhelming. It was the first position on uranium mining in recent years by the Farm Bureau.
"They came to this conclusion because they've seen no evidence so far that technology exits to do it safely right now," Smith said of mining and milling uranium.
Virginia Uranium Inc. insists it can safely mine the largest known uranium deposit in the U.S., create hundreds of jobs and generate tax dollars and other revenues for Southside Virginia, a region in the state's tobacco belt that has seen its textile economy decline. The mining within 10 miles of Chatham would also require the milling of the ore to separate it from rock, then the disposal of the waste product for generations in containment units.
Virginia Uranium has pledged to build those units below-grade to minimize any threat of the radioactive waste, known as tailings, contaminating nearby water supplies and farm fields.
A spokesman for the company said he was unhappy with the Farm Bureau's stand.
"Absolutely it's disappointing that the state Farm Bureau passed a resolution to keep the moratorium, especially when we see examples around the world where agriculture and uranium have co-existed," Patrick Wales said.
Closer to home, the Pittsylvania County Farm Bureau recently passed a resolution calling for agricultural interests to have a role in developing regulations for uranium mining and milling, if it's allowed, Wales said.
Mining opponents contend the East Coast's first full-fledged uranium mine would operate in a climate that is prone to severe storms and rains that could breach the containment units. They've also argued the stigma of uranium mining will harm tourism and sour consumer interest in any farm products.
Smith said the Farm Bureau was mindful of those concerns.
"We're not talking about something like a petroleum spill or something that can be cleaned up in a day, months or even a couple years," he said. "We're talking about something that could take decades or centuries to clean up that could have devastating effects on neighboring properties."
The Farm Bureau vote comes on the eve of the release of a state report that examines a range of issues related to uranium mining, including a regulatory framework the state would need to have in place.
The Uranium Working Group, which includes state mining, public health and environmental officials, is scheduled to issue its report by the end of the week. It will not include a recommendation on the ban.
Steve Szkotak can be reached on Twitter at https://twitter.com/sszkotakap
Virginia Farm Bureau Federation: https://vafarmbureau.org/default.aspx
Uranium Working Group: http://www.uwg.vi.virginia.gov/
Virginia Uranium Inc.: http://www.virginiauranium.com/
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