Future of uranium mining up for debate in Virginia

CHATHAM, VA (WWBT) - It has been illegal in Virginia for more than three decades, but now a powerful push is on to lift the ban on uranium mining.

This Tuesday's election could play a crucial role in deciding the future of that ban. Virginia Uranium has donated more than $100,000 to candidates across Virginia.

Their goal is to take a 35 hundred acre site in Chatham and turn it into a $10 billion mine.

Pittsylvania County is the next frontier in uranium. The element is the principle building block of nuclear energy and an incredibly valuable commodity.

"As a world we already operating at a deficit," said Patrick Wales, a Danville native and the project manager for Virginia Uranium's potential mine.

The company is stepping up their efforts to get that expensive material out of the ground and into the global economy.

"Creating energy independence, for this commonwealth, for this country," said Wales. "And we can do it all by putting 325 people to work."

Chatham native Walter Coles, the owner of Virginia Uranium has invested heavily in the idea that Virginia is up to opening up this mine.

Over the last three years his company has employed 15 different lobbyists from 4 different firms and has directly donated more than $116,000 to candidates in the General Assembly.

Chesterfield Senator John Watkins is one of them.

"I don't stand to profit from Virginia Uranium," said Watkins

Watkins has accepted $2,000 from the company in the past three years, but is not even close to the top of Virginia Uranium's donor list.

They have doled out $10,000 to Governor Bob McDonnell's political action committee, and $5,000 to Colonial Heights Delegate Kirk Cox, two of the players that will play a major role in deciding what happens in Chatham.

A place Eloise Nenon, calls home.

"Some of them have been influenced; there is no question about that," Nenon said.

She views uranium mining as a worst case scenario. It is something she believes could threaten her drinking water, tear up the beautiful landscape and even shut down the town's two prestigious private boarding schools.

Chatham is a town that is almost trapped in town and filled with working class people that Eloise believes could never muster the type of resources to compete with a big company like Virginia Uranium.

"You can really question that they are buying them off," she said.

The donations are one thing, but Eloise and other environmental activists have called out Virginia Uranium for two trips where they paid the full bill to take members of the General Assembly to France and Canada to see working uranium mines. The French trip cost nearly $10,000 per legislator.

"There certainly was not a lot of free time available," Wales said of the trips.

Both trips were taken over long weekends, packed with tours and meetings. Watkins said he was taught things he could have never learned on his own. And he isn't opposed to learning more.

"If the Sierra Club or some other group wants to come to me and say, 'Senator Watkins we want you to go to this mine or some other place, because they had a problem.' I'm ready to go."

But for critics like Elosie Nenon, the connection leaves too many unanswered questions.

"How corrupt some of them are," she said. "I can't really tell you, we'll find out"

If the moratorium is lifted, it will just begin the process of opening up Coles Hill. The project must still meet very stringent federal and state regulatory standards before any work can start.

The threat to the environment is still very much an open question. Lawmakers are hoping to get guidance from two studies expected to be released in December. One from the national academy of sciences will address the environmental impact and the other from Virginia Tech will outline any potential soci-economic effects.

Copyright 2011 WWBT NBC12. All rights reserved.