An education for lawmakers

Bessines, France is a village of 1,600 persons located 60 miles west of Paris. Beginning in 1948 until operations ended in 1995, it was a great mining center for uranium, and it enabled France to lead the world in the production of electricity from nuclear energy.

About 30 years ago, uranium was discovered in the Coles Hill community near Chatham in Pittsylvania County, Va. The General Assembly was so concerned about safety at this time during the Three Mile Island era that it passed a moratorium on uranium mining in the state.

In recent years, bills have been introduced to remove the ban. Proponents of these bills make the case based on the nation’s need for domestic energy sources and on economic development that would provide jobs for southside Virginia.

Opponents point to safety factors, primarily the concern for water, believing that mining operations would likely contaminate and pollute the streams that feed Lake Gaston, which supplies drinking water for the Norfolk-Virginia Beach area.

Virginia Uranium, Inc., a company hoping to mine what is believed to be the largest uranium deposit in the U. S., invited many members of the General Assembly to visit the mining site at Bessines this summer as part of a lobbying campaign to convince the state to overturn its ban on mining radioactive material. Fourteen Delegates accepted the five-day trip in June at an estimated cost of $10,000 per person.

Virginia Uranium, Inc. is affiliated with Virginia Uranium, Ltd. which, through merger, is now Virginia Energy Resources. It trades under the Toronto Exchange as VAE.

Trips are permissible under Virginia law although lobbyists must report gifts to elected officials on their annual Financial Disclosure statements. In addition, members of the General Assembly must report trips as gifts. There are over 900 lobbyists registered with the Virginia Secretary of the Commonwealth. Only a few are financially able to secure the attention and interests of elected representatives for five days. Apparently, Virginia Uranium expects to make large profits when and if the mining ban is lifted.

Not all of the invited members of the General Assembly took advantage of the trip. As reported in The Washington Post, Delegate David Albo (R-Fairfax) said he declined because of how accepting the invitation might be perceived in what may be a tough reelection campaign. All seats in the General Assembly will be voted upon in November. “I thought it would be a useful trip knowledge-wise, but politically speaking, I think it has the appearance of impropriety,” he said.

On the other hand, another Virginian, Delegate David Englin (D-Alexandria), justified his acceptance of the visit in an article for the Post entitled “Why I went to France on the corporate dime.” He reported that Virginia Uranium took the group to France because the mine site there is most comparable to the south-central Virginia site. He added, however, that uranium mines elsewhere in the world are in arid geographies and that the sites in France and Virginia are in fertile, moist areas, surrounded by agriculture and close to rivers that supply drinking water to major population centers.

Elgin, who considers himself an environmentalist and cites his record of taking on polluters, tobacco companies, and other corporate interests, stated that, “my vote is not for sale” and that, “the trip to France was an opportunity to hear Virginia Uranium’s best and strongest case ... and was only part of my work to be well informed on this issue.”

He hopes to travel to Canada to see an active uranium mining and milling operation.

Patrick Wales, Virginia Uranium’s project manager was quoted, saying, “This is not a vacation ... If we’re going to ask our legislators to make a decision, it’s important to have the best information in front of them.” Reports on the trip vary on how much time was spent in Paris and how much free time was available for the travelers. Some say one and a half days were spent in Paris; others say three days. In any event, a trip to France would be incomplete without enjoying the culture of the city. Will continuing education change legislative behavior?

Information from a French business web site shows that after mining operations ceased in 1995 at Bessines, the area went through an amazing rehabilitation beginning in 2001 in accordance with the most stringent environmental standards and is subject to permanent radiological monitoring. Tours by individuals and school groups are free and last from one to two and a half hours.

As a former lobbyist as well as a former geologist who served with the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers in the Far East Command in 1952, I’m miffed that I didn’t get called upon to join the group visiting Bessines and given the opportunity to survey the situation personally in Paris.

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