RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Two environmental groups opposed to ending a 30-year state ban on uranium mining in Virginia have raised new complaints about a state panel studying the issue and the hiring of a consultant they say has too many industry ties.
The issues were outlined in a letter sent to Gov. Bob McDonnell and released Monday by the Piedmont Environmental Council and the Virginia League of Conservation Voters.
The criticism is aimed at the Uranium Working Group, a multi-agency effort to examine the regulatory framework and safeguards that would need to be in place if Virginia lifted a 1982 ban on uranium mining. The panel is not expected to issue a recommendation on an issue the 2013 General Assembly will likely address.
The fractious debate over the ban came in response to a proposal by Virginia Uranium Inc. to mine a deposit of the radioactive ore it estimates to be 119 million pounds in Pittsylvania County, in the state's southern tier. The ore deposit is one of the largest in the world.
In its correspondence with McDonnell, the complaints from the environmental groups range from a lack of timely updates on the working group's website to what it called an absence of transparency as officials go about their work. Some of the issues were taken up at an April 4 meeting that left few critics satisfied.
They also take aim at Wright Environmental Services Inc., which has been hired by the working group as consultants at a cost to the state of $513,133. They complain the two-year-old company has a "short track record" and has too many connections to the mining and nuclear power industry.
"What we're concerned about here is they appear to have hired a group that has only done work for uranium mining companies and that they're going to go with them behind closed doors and come up with a uranium mining law and a set of regulations," said Rob Marmet of the Piedmont Environmental Council, speaking in an interview.
"It doesn't appear to us whether people are going to be able to see whether the hard questions are going to be asked," added Marmet, a senior energy policy analyst for the council.
The president of Wright Environmental Services of Fort Collins, Colo., said while his company is young, he has assembled a team that includes "literally hundreds of years" of experience within the industry and on the regulatory side, including the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
"I assembled a team not only of people who are experts in uranium from a consulting perspective but also regulators, because I felt it was important to the state to have access to people who stood in their shoes," Toby Wright said in an interview.
On possible conflicts or the appearance of bias, he said, "Those comments are, I believe, inconsistent in general and I won't comment further."
McDonnell's office said the letter arrived Monday and was being reviewed. The governor's energy adviser, Maureen Matsen, did not respond to an email from The Associated Press.
A National Academy of Sciences report examining the statewide impact of uranium mining concluded in a report issued late last year that Virginia faced steep hurdles to ensure that uranium mining and milling are conducted safely.
Virginia Uranium says best industry practices outlined in the NAS report can minimize risks, but environmental groups contend the wet East Coast climate is ill-suited for uranium mining.
Uranium mining has never occurred on the East Coast except as a byproduct of other mining. Mining advocates contend mining the Virginia deposit would create hundreds of jobs and revenues in an economically depressed part of the state.
Steve Szkotak can be reached on Twitter at https://twitter.com/(hash)!/sszkotakap