CHATHAM, Va. — In a landscape of rolling pastures and grazing cattle, Stewart East stepped from his pickup truck with a Geiger counter. He pointed it at a puddle filled by recent rains, and the instrument erupted in scratchy feedback.
“This is the top of the deposit,” said Mr. East, an employee of a company that wants to mine one of the largest lodes of uranium in the United States, which happens to be found here in southern Virginia.
A fight over whether to drill beneath the oak hedgerows, an undertaking that would yield 1,000 jobs and a bounty of tax revenue in addition to nuclear fuel, has divided the region. The bitterness is reflected in competing lawn signs that read “No Uranium Mining” and, on the other side of the road, “Stop whining. Start mining.”
Now, after years of government reports and hundreds of thousands of dollars in political donations that included a trip to France for state lawmakers, the issue has reached the crucible of Virginia’s General Assembly.
Bills introduced last week would lift a moratorium on uranium mining at the site here, known as Coles Hill. Political supporters say that the mining wouldbring economic benefits and that risks from radioactive wastes, or tailings, can be safely managed. Opponents fear the contamination of drinking water in case of an accident, and a stigma from uranium that would deter people and businesses from moving to the area.
The politics of the issue do not divide neatly along party lines. Opponents include most state lawmakers from the region, all of whom are Republicans. A prominent supporter is the minority leader of the State Senate, Richard L. Saslaw, a Democrat, who lives in the northern suburbs. Asked about buried uranium tailings that remain a risk for hundreds of years, Mr. Saslaw, who is known for unguarded statements, said in a radio interview, “I’m not going to be here.”
Many lawmakers in the Republican-controlled General Assembly seem to be looking to Gov. Bob McDonnell for guidance.
But Mr. McDonnell, also a Republican, pointedly indicated on Tuesday, when the last research report he requested arrived, that he might not take a position at all. The governor will review the findings “before deciding whether or not to take any recommendation on uranium mining,” said Jeff Caldwell, a spokesman for Mr. McDonnell, who is thought to be considering a run for the presidency in 2016.
Proponents of extracting Virginia’s uranium, worth an estimated $7 billion, argue that national security demands more domestic mining, because 92 percent is imported. Mr. McDonnell used that same argument to push drilling for oil and gas off Virginia’s coast (now blocked by the Obama administration).
Supporters are disappointed and perplexed by Mr. McDonnell’s cautious stance so far, given that he once vowed to make Virginia “the energy capital of the East Coast.”
A spokesman denied that the governor was motivated by a political calculus over his national reputation. “He’s focused on public health and safety and smart public policy. That’s it,” said J. Tucker Martin, Mr. McDonnell’s communications director.
A National Academy of Sciences report in 2011 stopped the momentum in last year’s General Assembly for lifting the ban, imposed three decades earlier in the wake of the Three Mile Island nuclear plant accident. The report warned of “steep hurdles” to safe mining and “significant human health” dangers if a capped tailings pile leaks because of the state’s “frequent storms.”
After a follow-up report ordered by the governor, the Virginia Commission on Coal and Energy, a group of 13 legislators, voted to clear the way last month for lifting the ban in the legislature.
Patrick Wales, the project manager for Virginia Uranium, the mine developer, said he shared in the concerns for safety. “My son plays in these creeks,” Mr. Wales said. He said improvements in tailings storage have “largely eliminated” the environmental hazards associated with reckless uranium mining in the West through the 1970s.
To influence lawmakers, Virginia Uranium has poured more than $600,000 into campaign contributions and lobbying since 2008, according to public records. For the current 45-day legislative session in Richmond, it has retained 20 lobbyists.
The opposition, made up of a coalition of environmental groups, the Virginia Farm Bureau and cities downstream from the mine site, has also spent generously on lobbyists.
“By now, members are running and hiding” in the Capitol when they spot a lobbyist, a legislative aide said.
In 2010 and 2011, Virginia Uranium paid $122,000 total to fly about two dozen members of the General Assembly to France to visit a tailings storage site, which critics quickly labeled a junket. The sponsor of the Senate bill that would lift the uranium ban, John C. Watkins, was among those traveling.
“There is nothing in life that is 100 percent guaranteed,” Mr. Watkins said of the safety concerns of opponents, adding that he respected those concerns. His bill would direct the state to write regulations for mining, including protecting groundwater, a process that could take several years. “We are going to employ the best engineering, the best technology, the best science” to prevent contamination, he said.
In south-central Virginia, many officials have come out in opposition, most recently the Chamber of Commerce of Danville and Pittsylvania County, where Chatham is.
Delegate James E. Edmunds II, a Republican, said that in the event that radiation leaked into the groundwater, his district would be one of the first affected. “There’s no waiting for a big rain to clean it up,” he said. “I’m not going to have that as my legacy.”
The issue has turned many of the region’s elected Republicans, the party of “drill, baby, drill” and property rights, into mining opponents.
Officials described wrestling with their desire to bring jobs to an area facing high unemployment and whose tobacco and textile industries have collapsed. “It’s been very divisive, very difficult,” said Delegate Donald W. Merricks, who represents Chatham and opposes the mine.
In Chatham, a quaint town anchored by an 1853 courthouse with fat white columns, the nerves of many residents are so frayed that they would not say which side they were on for fear of angering neighbors.
But at Pat’s Place, a lunch counter on South Main Street, Jason Hicks, the 38-year-old owner, was not so shy. “I think it would be a good thing,” said Mr. Hicks, whose business has not fully recovered from the recession. “The county is starving for jobs. With that coming in, it would pick up the town a whole lot.”
Wanda Doss, 56, a clerical worker leaving Pat’s, said: “I’m afraid of cancer down the road and polluted water. You have a flood, and it’s going to get in the water system.”
Informal vote counters in the General Assembly said the House, where Republicans hold a supermajority, is inclined to say yes to mining. The State Senate, with Democrats and Republicans each holding 20 seats, is considered too close to call.
Even if Mr. McDonnell does not weigh in, his lieutenant governor, William T. Bolling, a Republican, may exert an influence; he casts the deciding vote in the event of a tie in the Senate. Thwarted by his party in his quest to become its nominee to replace Mr. McDonnell this year, Mr. Bolling has hinted that he might run as an independent.
He recently said he opposes uranium mining.
This article, "Rift Widens Over Mining of Uranium in Virginia," first appeared in The New York Times.
Copyright © 2013 The New York Times