Studying the Study Group

Maureen Matsen, deputy secretary of natural resources, and Martin Kent, governor’s chief of staff.

by James A. Bacon

The McDonnell administration hosted a hastily assembled meeting yesterday to address, in the words Deputy Sectretary of Natural Resources Maureen Matsen, the “perceived lack of transparency in the conduct of [the] Uranium Working Group.” The meeting was attended by a couple dozen stakeholders, administration officials and members of the press.

If the goal was to appease critics of the governor’s working group, however, the meeting fell flat. The late-afternoon meeting lasted less than an hour, administration officials made few tangible promises, and uranium mining foes said their concerns about openness and transparency remain unresolved.

“They’re trying their best but there’s definitely an arm’s-length [feeling] here,” said Mae Fox, a lobbyist representing the Virginia Coalition, a group of Southside business interests worried by the stigma that uranium mining might give the region.

“It was a very abbreviated meeting,” said Dan Holmes, director of state policy for the Piedmont Environmental Council. “Some of the answers made me feel a little more comfortable [but only] about 30% of the issues got thrown on the table. … How much real discussion can  you have with that many parties at the table for an hour?”

A press release from the Roanoke River Basin Association characterized the meeting as a “damage control PR” session called in response to critical articles and op-eds in the media. The RRBA never received an invitation to the meeting.  “It is apparent that local citizen groups are being excluded from the discussion. We and many other citizen groups in Southside Virginia and North Carolina are at the ground zero,” said Gene Addesso, RRBA vice president.

McDonnell established the Uranium Working Group (UWG) in January after deciding not to pursue legislation in the 2011 General Assembly session to lift the ban on uranium mining in the state. The group is comprised of staff from the Departments Environmental Quality (DEQ), Health (VDH) and Mines Minerals and Energy (DMME) and supported by outside consultants. Its purpose is to address 18 issues regarding uranium mining safety and regulation listed in a governor’s directive.

According to the UWG’s website, the group will make “regular reports of its progress” at meetings of the Uranium Subcommittee of the Coal and Energy Commission. The four meetings, which will be open to public comment, will address mine permitting issues, water quality, tailings storage, workers health and other issues.

The purpose of the group is to find answers to questions left unanswered by a National Academy Sciences study and to develop a “conceptual statutory and regulatory framework” to assist the General Assembly in making “well informed policy decisions in the future.”

“This is not a rule-making process,” stressed Matsen at the meeting. “It’s just the executive branch trying to bring resources to bear on the issue.” She said the group would make its deliberations “as open and transparent as possible.”

Cathie France, head of the Uranium Working Group

Cathie France, deputy director for energy policy at DMME and a key staff member of the UWG, said the group’s first question would be: can uranium be mined safely? The group will examine a wide range of data bearing on the short-range and long-range impact. The group would be receptive “to any data you’d like us to consider,” she said.

Interested parties can suggest “anything you want us to look at” by submitting it on the UWG website, said Matsen. “The intent is to get more [information] rather than less,” added Martin Kent, McDonnell’s chief of staff.

Concrete ideas for making the process more transparent included maintaining a ListServ for the purpose of communicating information to stakeholders and posting transcripts of meetings online. “We’ll try to find ways to make [them] accessible statewide,” Kent said.

While those suggestions would improve the administration’s communications to the public, some attendees wanted to ensure that the public had ample opportunity to communicate to the administration.

“The task is going to be huge,” said Fox with the Virginia Coalition. A large number of people are very riled up, she said. She expects public meetings in the Danville/Pittsylvania area, where the Coles Hill uranium deposit is located, will generate broad participation. People are going to want to have their say, and meeting organizers need to ensure that there will be enough time to hear them.

Fox also wants to ensure that stakeholders receive UWG reports in a timely fashion. “It’s difficult to comment on something you’ve just heard. … Is there any chance of seeing materials in advance?”

Holmes, with the Piedmont Environmental Council, has even more fundamental concerns. Citing the information surfaced by Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests in the Charlottesville Bypass controversy, he said he wants to be assured that the UWG will be subject to FOIA and not exempted as “governor’s working papers.”

The UWG’s final report will be issued December 1, Holmes said. “It’s hard to look at that abbreviated timeline and not be concerned that it’s a set-up for the 2013 legislature.”

This article was made possible by a Piedmont Environmental Council sponsorship.

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  1. […] Studying the Study Group (Bacon’s Rebellion) McDonnell Excludes Citizens Groups from Uranium Working Group, Invites VA […]

  2. At present , the level of trust for the UWG is weak. France, Matsen and Kent ask for data, information and ideas. Unless information gathered is publically accessible, it will be difficult to determine its authenticity or have the ability to dispute it. Will they bury information that might be contrary to VUI or the Governor’s wishes? Transparency is…transparent. It seems as though this group, as mama used to say, is “flying by the seat of its breeches”.

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