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Uranium Debate Heats Up As Virginia Assembly Session Begins

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Virginia lawmakers are poised to renew the battle over uranium mining when they return to Richmond this week.
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Virginia lawmakers are poised to renew the battle over uranium mining when they return to Richmond this week.

Virginia's Coal and Energy Commission is recommending that the General Assembly consider overturning a longstanding ban on uranium mining this legislative session. The issue may become one of the hottest topics of the year.

State Sen. Dick Saslaw does not mince words about his support for uranium mining. A Northern Virginia Democrat who is also the Senate minority leader, Saslaw says burying the radioactive byproduct known as tailings underground should be a solution to environmental concerns. And he says he can't be concerned about what might happen 100 from now.

"What about 10,000 years from now? I'm not going to be here," Saslaw says. "I can't ban something because of something that might happen 500 or 1,000 years from now."

Others disagree. Arlington Sen. Barbara Favola says the economic benefit to struggling Pittsylvania County is not enough to warrant the potential damage created by overturning the ban. She says she has a hard time trusting arguments that storing radioactive material underground is a good idea in the long run.

"I simply can't believe that, because it's going to be stored underground for a very long time," Favola says. "And you're talking about radioactive material getting into people's groundwater."

Although the uranium deposits in question are close to the North Carolina border in the southern part of the state, some Northern Virginia legislators say they are concerned that allowing mining in one part of the state might soon jeopardize groundwater in other parts of the state. Still others say new technology has created safe ways of storing radioactive waste.

Fairfax County Sen. George Barker remains undecided.

"Clearly, some of the concerns have been addressed with the proposal to put it all underground," Barker. "Whether that's adequate to resolve it, I don't have an opinion on that yet."

The state's Coal and Energy Commission voted 11-2 on Monday in favor of the General Assembly considering legislation to overturn the ban on uranium mining in Virginia.

The legislative session begins Wednesday at noon in Richmond.

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