Virginia Weighs an End to Its 31-Year-Old Uranium Mining Ban

 
Virginia Uranium Inc. project manager Patrick Wales operates a Geiger counter near Chatham, Virginia, where a deposit of uranium worth as much as $10 billion sits. (AP)

CHATHAM, Virginia – A second of silence, then a smattering of applause conveying more relief than excitement. That’s what followed last week’s vote by the Pittsylvania County Board of Supervisors to endorse a continuation of Virginia’s 31-year-old ban on uranium mining.

Pittsylvania’s supervisors have long been divided on whether to join surrounding Virginia counties in opposing the development of a uranium deposit in the area that could be worth as much as $10 billion. That deposit could transform — for better or worse, depending on whom you ask — this economically-battered region called Southside, and dramatically boost U.S. domestic uranium supplies.

“I keep thinking there’s going to be a hitch in there somewhere,” mining opponent Andrew Lester, executive director of the Roanoke River Basin Coalition, said under his breath as board members dissected the proposed resolution line-by-line. “But if this is it, it’s the lynchpin.”

The uranium issue has divided neighbors and brothers in this community, where dueling lawn signs with messages such as “Keep the ban,” “I dig uranium. It’s about prosperity,” “No uranium mining,” and “Stop whining, start mining” have sprouted all over town.

The board’s near-unanimous decision finally provided some clarity here, but the ultimate decision lies with the Virginia General Assembly. State lawmakers in Richmond face a number of complicated questions: Could Virginia, with no experience regulating uranium mining, properly oversee the country’s largest operation? Do the potential economic benefits — however large — outweigh the potential for large impacts on public health and the environment — however unlikely?

Some Pittsylvanians aren’t sure how loudly their resolution will echo at the state capitol, even coming from the folks who live atop the deposit. “I just hope we’re not too late,” says Marshall Ecker, the board’s chairman, “because decisions are being made now.”

‘Economic game-changer’

As early as Thursday, the Virginia State Senate’s Agriculture Committee is expected to take up legislation that would lift the state’s moratorium. That would clear the way for Virginia Uranium to develop the 119 million-pound deposit beneath Coles Hill Farm, an area of rolling countryside near Chatham where cattle graze now.

Chatham fancies itself “the prettiest little town in all of Southside.” Here, Victorian houses peek through trees and Main Street sports a barbershop advertising $5 haircuts and a stone monument to Confederate dead. But other parts of Southside aren’t so pretty. Long dependent on tobacco, textiles and furniture making — industries that have largely faded into the past — the region typically leads Virginia in unemployment and lags behind in income. 

“It’s heartbreaking,” says Patrick Wales, Virginia Uranium’s project manager and a native of nearby Danville. “It’s disturbing to drive around town and see so many empty buildings.”

That, says Wales, is why the area needs the proposed mine, what he calls “an economic game-changer” that would bring high-paying mining jobs to the region, along with indirect jobs that accompany development.

In 2011, a state-ordered study by Chmura Economics & Analytics estimated the project would generate 1,000 annual direct and indirect jobs over the mine’s 35-year lifespan, with most going to locals. It pegged the mine’s net economic impact at $135 million annually, projecting it would generate $3.1 million each year in state and local taxes. Those numbers could dwindle, however, if the mine caused serious environmental impacts, the study said.

The U.S. currently imports most of its uranium, which it mainly uses to power its 104 nuclear reactors. If the Virginia mining proceeds, it would give the country its largest domestic source of uranium, and its only source east of the Mississippi River. Coles Hill holds enough to power every U.S. reactor for two years, and then some.

“It makes good sense to have a higher uranium deposit for the future,” says Charles Ebinger, an expert on energy security at the Brookings Institute. Though a shifting energy market — mainly the arrival of low-priced natural gas — has created major challenges for the nuclear industry, Ebinger and others say the emergence of small-scale nuclear reactors and a possible federal crackdown on carbon could eventually bring nuclear power back into the spotlight. “There is a future for uranium,” he says.

Water Worries

The mine’s opponents, however, worry about the region’s water. Coles Hill sits in the Roanoke River Basin, which houses the water supply for 1.2 million people in Virginia and North Carolina. Raleigh, whose population has nearly doubled since 1990, is awaiting approval of a request to tap 50 million gallons a day from the basin. 

“It is the strategic water supply for the entire triangle region,” says Mike Pucci, who lives along Lake Gaston and leads a group called the North Carolina Coalition Against Uranium Mining. “We’re the ones who will bear the brunt if something goes wrong.”

The mining, which involves moving millions of tons of rock underground and from an open pit, would clearly disrupt water sources, experts say. More concerning, however, is the milling process, where ore is crushed into smaller particles, from which the uranium is extracted and later concentrated into the “yellowcake” that can be converted into nuclear fuel.

Radioactive waste from that process, bits of heavy metal ore and radium called “tailings” that are stored on site, present some of the biggest challenges for environmental regulators. The largest fear among environmental and health advocates is that the tailings would escape into the water supply, exposing the public to cancer-causing agents.

Such problems have mostly been identified at uranium sites operating with low grade technology and little concern about safety.

“If a problem arises, you can’t solve it,” says Lester, of the Roanoke Coalition. “This whole river system will be polluted forever.”

Virginia Uranium and the mine’s proponents say such fears are overblown in an age of increased emphasis on safety, and that negative perceptions of the industry are largely influenced by the sins of its past, mainly in the early-to-mid 20th century. The company says it will use the best available technology, which will largely mitigate risks.

“There is still so much misinformation,” says Wales. “No one is more concerned about safety than us. We live here as well.”

Meanwhile, people on both sides of the debate point to a National Academy of Sciences study the state commissioned in 2011. It concluded that tailings disposal sites “represent significant potential sources of contamination for thousands of years, and the long-term risks remain poorly defined.” But it also noted that new management practices have significantly lowered risks, though there is little data to show how it will play out in the long term.

“The uranium industry has learned from its mistakes,” says Paul Locke, an expert in public health at Johns Hopkins University who oversaw the study. “But we don’t really have any guarantees….A lot has to go right, and pretty much nothing can go wrong.”

Uranium mining carries an added risk in Virginia, because of its relatively moist climate, exposure to frequent storms and proximity to an active fault line.  All other U.S. uranium sites are found in regions rarely exposed to such factors, which add challenges to designing storage containers for tailings. Locke and his fellow researchers concluded it is “questionable” whether modern designs could prevent contamination of ground and surface water for more than 1,000 years.

Parts of the Coles Hill site often flood when hit by two inches of rain, locals say. Last week, melting snow left standing water in several spots.

Mine proponents point to sites in Australia and British Columbia, where uranium companies have dealt with extreme weather, though such places tend to be secluded — unlike Pittsylvania county and the surrounding area.

To safely develop the site, Virginia would need to construct a strict regulatory regime with staff and equipment projected to cost more than $5 million each year. That process could take years.

Virginia Uranium says it would like to provide answers to the looming questions, but it can’t formulate concrete plans until the moratorium is lifted. “All we’ve ever asked for is allow regulations to be written,” Wales says.  

Taking sides

Dozens of cities, counties and local groups in Virginia and North Carolina have passed resolutions calling for the moratorium to be left intact. And at the state level, health and environmental groups have been joined by the typically-pro-business Virginia Farm Bureau and the NAACP. The broader business community is largely split.

Most Virginia lawmakers representing those communities appear to oppose the bill, regardless of party affiliation. North Carolina policymakers also have expressed opposition, though the state has no say in the decision short of litigation.

In December, the North Carolina Legislature’s Environmental Review Commission sent a letter to Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell expressing “significant concern” about allowing uranium development. State environmental regulators said the release of radioactive tailings could devastate drinking water supplies, and industrial and agriculture operations, while causing $15 million in losses to tourism and recreation along Kerr Lake and Lake Gaston.

“We’re watching and concerned,” says Representative Winkie Wilkins, a Democrat who represents nearby Granville and Person Counties. “If [Virginia] proceeds, I hope they would be very cautious.” Wilkins says he has fielded about a dozen calls from concerned constituents.

Followers of the Virginia General Assembly expect the bill would draw a close vote in the Senate, where Republicans and Democrats share control. That's if the bill survives a committee vote, which may prove difficult. Mining opponents are buoyed by the fact that Lt. Governor Bill Bolling, who would cast the deciding vote in the event of a tie, has publically supported the moratorium. But Virginia Uranium has worked hard to influence the lawmakers, contributing hundreds of thousands of dollars in the past few years, and Wales says he remains optimistic.

Meanwhile, it is unknown where McDonnell’s allegiances lie. “The governor is studying all the public safety and health issues surrounding this issue,” his office told Stateline.

 
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