A 30-year-old debate concerning a moratorium on uranium mining in southern Virginia is dividing state legislators. However, contention is based on geographic lines rather than the typical differences in partisanship
Governor Robert F. McDonnell said, “I have long maintained that Virginia should be prudent in considering the potential lifting of the uranium mining moratorium in the commonwealth.”
When a joint venture between the Marline Uranium Corporation and Union Carbide sought to extract the uranium oxide from a farm in Chatham, Va. owned by the Coles family, legislators placed a moratorium on the effort to allow time to study the issue. A drop in global uranium prices and lingering skepticism of nuclear power following the 1979 Three Mile Island meltdown forced the project to a halt.
The Coles family revived the project several years ago when uranium prices began to soar once more. They formed their own company, Virginia Uranium Inc., and have been trying vehemently to repeal the moratorium since 2007.
Pro-mining efforts are focusing the argument on the economic advantages of mining.
Virginia is home to the largest source of uranium in the United States and seventh largest in the world. Mining would create about 1000 new jobs in an area struggling with unemployment and would provide $135 million to the region. An estimated 119,000 pounds of ore rests in Pittsylvania County, roughly 200 miles west of Hampton Roads, and is valued at approximately $7 billion.
The site is abundant enough to sustain all US nuclear power plants for two years, or Virginia for 75 years. It would also propel the US towards greater energy independence as 90 percent of uranium is imported from foreign sources.
Patrick Wales, project manager for Virginia Uranium Inc., argues the importance of uranium mining for closing the “energy gap on the East Coast.” He claimed the lode could potentially create 20 times more energy than all of the estimated oil of the coast of Virginia and create a 50 percent increase in the nation’s uranium production.
In December 2011, the National Academy of Sciences delivered a report commissioned by the state legislature to study industry practices, health and safety issues, and regulatory considerations for the state. The report offered no conclusion regarding the moratorium, but said if it was lifted, Virginia could not begin mining for at least five to eight years due to the absence of state regulations, health and environmental safeguards, and public input.
Those against mining argue the environmental and health related consequences of a potential contamination are not worth the benefiting economic factors. According to the Southern Environmental Law Center, the economic factors are not all it’s cracked up to be.
“The costs to Virginia in a worst-case disaster are almost double the benefits of the best-case scenario,” their website says.
The SELC cites potential health impacts of uranium exposure and mining chemicals. Global studies show people working in or living nears mines are at risk of lung cancer, bone cancer, leukemia, birth defects, weakened immune systems, hormone disruption, and damage to the DNA, kidneys and liver.
Others worry of the stigma that will be placed on Virginia with particular regard to importance of tourism on the local economy.
“We’ll be known as the uranium mill,” Delegate Donald W. Merricks (R-Pittsylvania) said. “That could be hard to overcome in trying to attract other industries.”
The biggest concern remains the environmental risks involved with uranium mining. The mining site at Coles Hill uranium mine, the proposed facility in Pittsylvania County, is 50 miles away from one of Hampton Roads’ main freshwater supplies, Lake Gaston.
Given the circumstances, there is strong potential for radioactive waste to enter Virginia land and waterways. The NAS report warned natural disasters like hurricanes, earthquakes and heavy rainfall “have the potential to lead to the release of contaminants if facilities are not designed and constructs to withstand such an event, or fail to perform as designed.”
In a separate study commissioned by the Virginia Beach, findings concluded failure of uranium waste sites, or containment cells, could cause radioactive contamination that would take anywhere from two months to 10 years to purify.
Wales still contends that, “Uranium mining is done safely all around the world, in a wide variety of climatic conditions. We believe Virginia is capable of setting a new, even higher standard.”
Currently, according to a survey, a narrow majority of 652 business leaders across Virginia oppose ending the moratorium. However, these leaders showed low to moderate trust in the available information surrounding the issue. Supporters of lifting the moratorium remain hopeful and adamant that opinions will change as they learn more on how the ore is mined and the protective actions that will be put in place.
“There’s only one factor that matters to me: Can we create a high degree of certainty that regulations that might be put in place…can provide for a high degree of public safety, including health, water, air and the rest?” Governor McDonnell said. “I’m not going to base this on political or financial issues.”
By: Derek Page