The Naro Expanded Cinema hosted a special viewing of the documentary “Hot Water”, a documentary on the consequences of uranium mining, on Wednesday, Nov. 13. The film was followed by a Q and A with the filmmaker, Lizabeth Rogers, Director of the Roanoke River Basin Association, Andrew Lester and Virginia Beach Utilities Director, Tom Leahy.
Hosted by The Sierra Club and the Keep the Ban Coalition, “Hot Water” made its Hampton Roads premier as part of a three stop Virginia tour which also included screenings in Richmond and Fairfax. The turnout was sizable and included a notable number of Old Dominion University students.
Many Virginians are unaware that the commonwealth has in place a moratorium on the mining of Uranium or that a 119 million pound deposit, worth as much as $2-7 billion, sits beneath the state’s soil along US 29 near Chatham.
Advocates for the ban are worried that this lack of knowledge will result in a deluge of misinformation about the dangers and negative consequences associated with the mining and milling process.
Rogers did not originally set out to make a movie about toxic contaminants and cancer-causing radiation. It was only after visiting Native American communities while making another documentary that she learned of these problems.
Rogers said, “We need to educate people like me. I didn’t know any of this stuff, when I started… I didn’t know what a picocurie [a measurement of radioactivity] was. I had no idea it was even in the Colorado River and that it was in my own drinking water.”
Many people associate the dangers of radioactive material with cold war-era nuclear attack or the more recent meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan, following the earthquake and subsequent catastrophic tsunami in March of 2011. However, some argue that the most lethal and long-lasting of the nuclear industry’s impacts will come from the extraction process itself.
“Hot Water” explores abandoned, leaking mines in the Black Hills of South Dakota, massive tailings piles [toxic waste left after the mining and milling process] abandoned by the industry in Utah, tragic cases of cancers that ravage rural families and communities and the fight and influence of the uranium mining industry to overturn Virginia’s ban on the practice.
The Virginia portion of the movie was added post production, after Rogers was contacted by Sara Dunavant on behalf of activists in the region.
Rogers said, “I thought the movie was finished last March when it premiered at the Washington DC Environmental Film Festival and it was shortly after that I got a call.”
The film trades between hilariously misinformed 1950s black-and-white PSAs and government training videos, humorous explanations of complex scientific ideas and facts and emotionally trying interviews with people who have been directly affected by water and environmental contamination caused by uranium mining, including surviving family members.
The Coles Hill Deposit, only 30 miles from the North Carolina border, has been called the largest untouched deposit in the country. Virginian Uranium (VU), the company that would operate potential mines, asserts that lifting the ban and allowing them to carry out the extraction process would create 1000 jobs. According to one billboard, lifting the ban would allow them to operate “the safest uranium mine in the world.”
Critics, like Lester point to studies, including conducted by the flood-prone city of Virginia Beach, that illustrate how potential water and soil contamination could occur in the event of a major flood. According to the studies, flood waters could overrun the tailings ponds and carry the contamination into major water ways which several communities including Hampton Roads pull water from.
During the Q and A one audience member suggested that the jobs created could actually pull employees from Canada, as Uranium mining requires intensive training and certification.
Lester pointed out that only one VU employee had ever worked in a mine and that in the event that they were allowed to move forward, the company might sell itself to a larger, more-experienced corporation that would be less-inclined to protect the community.
Lester also mentioned the issue of decreasing property values on land near the mine or along the route of the extraction and milling process. This may not come from any actual contamination or danger, but from the stigma attached to Uranium mining.
Quoting one Hargrave Military Academy official [a school in the area of the deposit], Lester said, “If I have to explain [to the parents of potential students] why it’s not a danger right now, I’ve already lost the battle of getting that child here.”
Supporters of the ban can take comfort in the fact that many cities, including several in the Hampton Roads region, favor the ban that the new Governor-elect has said he would uphold it.
Still, as Lester suggested “This battle is going to go on. These people [VU] probably have a five year plan… a lot of money is invested in this.. It’s our job to derail it.”
Please contact me, Sean Davis, at email@example.com with opinions, questions or comments about this subject.
By Sean Davis