To mine or not to mine

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Print this page by Garry Kranz

Contained beneath Pittsylvania County’s loamy soil, a mere whisper from the burgs of Gretna and Chatham, lies the largest undeveloped uranium deposit known in the U.S. Estimated at nearly 120 million tons of ore, its economic impact on Virginia would be profound — were it ever to be mined.

Virginia banned uranium mining in 1982.  However, the site’s monetary value — estimated between $7 billion to $10 billion — has a state subcommittee studying whether lawmakers should change the policy. In May, the Uranium Subcomittee of Virginia’s Coal and Energy Commission asked the National Academy of Sciences to conduct an independent study on the technical, environmental and safety issues associated with mining today.

Uranium is the element that is enriched and used for nuclear fuel. As renewed interest in nuclear power gains steam in the U.S. and elsewhere, demand for uranium is expected to grow.  Known as the Coles Hill deposit, the geological marvel in Pittsylvania presents a “golden opportunity for the state, and specifically Southside Virginia, to serve as the main source of that fuel domestically and worldwide,” says Robert Bodnar, a Virginia Tech professor who is researching the site.

To place the trove in context: Dominion Virginia Power, the state’s largest electric utility, burns about 1.6 million pounds of uranium annually at its four nuclear reactors. Dominion now imports all its uranium and will need more if it adds a third reactor at North Anna Power Station.

Dominion’s expansion plan means the “potential to mine Virginia uranium is therefore strategically important and warrants careful analysis,” according to a statement in Virginia’s Energy Plan.
Bodnar’s research is being funded in part by Virginia Uranium Ltd., a company formed by landowners of the property that contains the ore. The U.S. Geological Survey and Virginia Tech also are helping to underwrite Bodnar’s work.

Lifting the moratorium would stimulate economic recovery and provide new tax revenue, says state Sen. Frank Wagner, a Virginia Beach Republican and commission member. “But we don’t want to do it at the risk of public health,” he says.

Among the potential hazards: Virginia’s damp climate could increase the chances of radiation seeping into groundwater and streams. The concerns about possible downstream effects have raised red flags among citizens as far east as Virginia Beach.

Officials with Virginia Uranium say safety and environmental concerns are paramount. Clearly, though, the company would prefer to begin excavations sooner rather than later. In December, it announced merger plans with Santoy Resources Ltd., a huge mining company based in Canada. “You can’t bring a uranium deposit to your [location]. Mother Nature has given that to us,” says Patrick Wales, Virginia Uranium’s project manager.

Wales says developing the site would produce up to 500 local mining jobs with average salaries of $68,000. But many area residents aren’t interested. A group known as Southside Concerned Citizens opposes the project because of concerns over safety, ground water contamination and the area’s rural character. Many opponents fear uranium mining will enrich a few while endangering public health and ruining property values in the region.

The prospect of uranium mining also worries environmental groups.  The Virginia Conservation Network, the state chapter of the Sierra Club and the Southern Environmental Law Center in Charlottesville all oppose the plan. 

Mining activity isn’t imminent, but as Virginia balances rising energy needs, environmental concerns and economic development, this debate could quickly become radioactive.

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