On Wednesday, October 26, Goose Creek Association hosted presentations by the Piedmont Environmental Council (PEC)’s Chris Miller and the Virginia League of Conservation Voters (VALCV)’s Jeff Painter at the Middleburg Community Center on the issue of uranium mining in Virginia. The Virginia Assembly imposed a moratorium in 1982 on mining uranium in Virginia due to public safety issues involving the porous geology and wet climate of the areas that could be mined. At that time, the possible toxic impact of mining wastes on surface and ground water was considered sufficient to place a hold on the development of any regulations regarding mining uranium in Virginia where many mining leases had been issued. Uranium deposits lie throughout the state, generally tracking east of the Blue Ridge Mountains from south to north, involvingmany counties, including Fauquier and Loudoun. The market price for uranium also decreased at that time, so there was little industry pressure to lift the moratorium until now, as the price of uranium has increased on the world market.
Virginia Uranium Corporation (VUC) is now lobbying the Virginia Assembly to lift the moratorium. This summer and fall, VUC paid legislators to go to France (including overnight stopovers in Paris) and Canada to view uranium mining operations. Apparently, VUC has spent considerable amounts to persuade the legislators to lift the moratorium. VUC was established by Mr. Coles who owns Coles Hill in Pittsylvania County, near Chatham, in SW Virginia, where the first mining operations would occur. The company is listed as a public company on the Canadian exchange and there is no guarantee the uranium mined in Virginia would be used in Virginia. However, the mining would bring hundreds of jobs to the area. VUC says it intends to return the tailings waste to the excavated mines, but some toxic water waste would also need to be stored above ground.
Coles Mountain uranium waste and run-off could contaminate the surface and underground waters that provide drinking water to downstream residents in Virginia and North Carolina, stretching all the way across the state, through Lake Gaston to Virginia Beach and Norfolk. The ramifications of any pollution could be indelible, i.e., for hundreds of years, and the cost to taxpayers for clean-up and mitigation for consumers could be in the billions or more. The impact on surrounding farms and tourism also needs to be considered. As Chris Miller of the PEC noted, to date, even in arid, underpopulated areas of uranium mining in the US and elsewhere, there has been no uranium mining without toxic effect. In Canada and France, where the legislators toured, there were visible toxic ponds with signs limiting fishing, swimming and drinking due to pollution from the uranium mines. Given Virginia’s general lack of oversight and enforcement of other environmental regulations, it is difficult to conceive of regulations and enforcement in Virginia that could guaranty the safety of mining uranium where severe rainfall and porous geology raises the likelihood of seepage and spills. As elsewhere stated: If Virginia allows uranium mining, it would be the first state to do so in the United States in a climate where rainfall exceeds evaporation.
Several studies are underway and due in December. A National Academy of Sciences study has been contracted out to Virginia Tech and funded by VUC. These studies are not expected to add to what is already known, but rather to compile information from prior studies on uranium mining. The Virginia Assembly will meet in early 2012 and likely consider lifting the moratorium and directing the relevant state agencies to draft regulations. Legislators for the immediate Middleburg area have stated their opposition to lifting the moratorium, however, some seem to be hedging by saying that if mining can be done “safely,” then it should proceed. Again, there is no demonstrated uranium mining in an area like Virginia with such geologic porosity, rainfall, hurricanes, and population density, where mining has occurred without toxic results. In essence, VUC is saying: ‘trust us, new technology will make this the cleanest and safest mine in the world.’ Years after the mine is closed, however, any toxic storage or clean-up problems apparently become the federal government’s problems, which all taxpayers will have to pay for, and Virginians will have to live with. Given this year’s history of catastrophic radiation, mining and drilling failures in Japan, Lake Michigan and The Gulf, mining uranium in Virginia seems to be an unnecessary risk to our water supplies and countryside. Energy conservation and other types of alternative energy are more palatable routes to energy self-sufficiency.
The VA General Assembly decided not to vote on lifting the moratorium against mining uranium. We will continue to monitor this issue closely.