By STEVE SZKOTAK
RICHMOND, Va. (AP) â¿¿ Opponents of uranium mining in Virginia said Tuesday they have the votes in a Senate committee to block legislation that would effectively end a decades-old state moratorium on mining the radioactive ore.
"I'd say that it appears that the other side is handing over the white flag for this bill," said May Fox of the Virginia Coalition, a group representing businesses in Southside Virginia.
Bill Axselle Jr. of the anti-mining Alliance for Progress in Southern Virginia agreed that Sen. John Watkins' bill would be handily defeated in committee Thursday. Both said mining supporters are scrambling to salvage something this session."We don't know exactly how it will be done," Axselle said. Fox said, "There's still mischief to be done." Watkins, a Powhatan Republican, did not immediately return a message left with his office by The Associated Press. The Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee is scheduled to hear his legislation. It would create regulations to oversee uranium mining, which has never taken place on a large scale in the East. Some committee members have already publicly expressed opposition to the bill. "I can assure you, they do not have the 21 votes to get that bill out of the Senate," said Democratic Sen. Don McEachin, a committee member. Companion legislation has been filed in the House of Delegates, but its sponsor, Delegate Jackson Miller, R-Manassas, has deferred to Watkins. Virginia Uranium Inc. wants the General Assembly to end the 1982 mining ban so it can tap a 119-million-pound deposit of the ore in Pittsylvania County that it values at $7 billion. VUI's project manager, Patrick Wales, deferred to lawmakers to comment on the fate of the legislation, but he said in a statement: "This is a long process, we've always known that." The company has said the mine would create more than 300 jobs in the economically struggling region of the state and can be done safely.