The game changer

Uranium mining debate could shift to General Assembly

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Print this page by Tim Thornton

For nearly three decades, uranium mining has been prohibited in Virginia.  Now Virginia Uranium Inc. wants the General Assembly to lift the ban, allowing the company to mine a 119-million-pound deposit in the Coles Hill area of Pittsylvania County that could be worth $10 billion.
“This is something that is a game changer in Pittsylvania County and Southside Virginia,” says Patrick Wales, Virginia Uranium’s project manager.

Many people agree that the uranium mining would transform the region, but they are sharply divided on whether that change will be bad or good.  “I guess the key thing is that the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry,” says mining opponent Andrew Lester, the executive director of the Roanoke River Basin Association. “We can’t afford that.”

Virginia Uranium wants the legislature to consider a bill abolishing the moratorium during the General Assembly’s next session in January. Opponents, however, want the legislature to postpone debate until the following year. By then the results of three uranium-mining studies, all due in December, can be thoroughly examined, they say.

Any vote on the issue is months away, but about a dozen state lawmakers already have come under fire for a summer trip to France paid for by Virginia Uranium to inspect a former uranium-mining site. The junket is legal under state law.

Wales says any bill ending the ban would only be the beginning of a lengthy process. “A vote to lift the moratorium is not a vote for uranium mining,” he says. “It’s a vote to start writing the rules.”

He contends that uranium mining in Pittsylvania would provide hundreds of jobs paying an average of $65,000 annually in a region with chronically high unemployment.

Opponents, however, talk about health and environmental costs.  “All it’s going to take is one disaster, one major problem to occur and it could be of monumental proportions for hundreds of miles and thousands of people,” says Lester. “It has the potential to pollute the river system all the way to the Outer Banks.”

A Virginia Beach study says that, in a worse-case storm, failure of an impoundment holding tailings left after the uranium processing could release radioactive elements and toxic metals into the rivers flowing eventually into Kerr Reservoir and Lake Gaston. The Hampton Roads region and other communities draw drinking water from those bodies of water. 

Lester, however, says the economic argument against the mining may be stronger than the environmental one. “How many industries are going to come here and stay here if you have a major uranium mining operation?” he asks.

Virginia Uranium officials say assumptions made in the Virginia Beach study are realistic and point out that the uranium operation would have federal oversight. “If it’s ever going to be done, it’s going to be done in a way that takes into consideration more than just getting rocks out of the ground,” Wales says. “This is our home, too.”

Wales also doesn’t believe developing the mine will impede economic development.

“Saying no to a God-given natural resource says something about economic development,” he says.

In weighing the issue, the General Assembly commissioned an environmental study of uranium mining by the National Academy of Sciences and an economic study by Richmond-based Chmura Economics & Analytics. (Virginia Uranium is paying for the first study while the Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission provided a grant for the second one.) In addition, The Danville Regional Foundation is funding a study of the socioeconomic effects of the uranium mining.

If the General Assembly lifts the ban during the next session, Wales says mining still is at least five years away.

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