Uranium Mining - A Risky Experiment
Keep the Ban on Uranium Mining in Virginia
Governor urged to uphold uranium mining moratorium
Following the defeat of legislation to lift Virginia's longstanding ban on uranium mining in January 2013, some are now pressuring Gov. Bob McDonnell to circumvent the General Assembly and develop mining regulations outside of the legislative process.
SELC's Cale Jaffe and Bob Burnley, former director of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, wrote an opinion piece in today's Richmond Times-Dispatch making the case for why McDonnell should rebuff the mining company’s latest pleas to develop regulations.
They detail the numerous studies from the National Academy of Sciences and other experts that have looked at this issue, concluding, "uranium mining has been one of the most carefully studied environmental issues in recent Virginia history. In fact, the moratorium remains on the books precisely because peer-reviewed science has shed so much light on the issue."
In 2007, Virginia Uranium, Inc., went public with plans to exploit a major uranium deposit in Pittsylvania County, in southern Virginia. The operation would entail extensive mining, a milling facility, and disposal of massive amounts of waste that would leave a toxic and radioactive legacy for centuries.
The deposit at the "Coles Hill" farm was discovered years ago, but in 1982, the Virginia legislature enacted a statewide ban on uranium mining that still exists today. The industry failed to secure the support it needed to introduce legislation to repeal the ban in the 2012 General Assembly, but it mounted an intensive lobbying effort and introduced legislation in 2013. After a groundswell of opposition from local governments and business, health, and environmental groups, the legislation was pulled due to lack of support.
SELC is at the forefront of a statewide citizen effort, the Keep the Ban Coalition, to ensure the ban stays in place.
Uranium Mining: A Dangerous Proposal
Uranium occurs naturally in the ground, but when exposed to air and water, radiation is released into the environment. There is no precedent for large-scale uranium mining in the East, where the population density and a wet climate increase the chance of radiation contaminating streams and groundwater and exposure to humans.
In the last century, the Commonwealth has been hit by at least 78 category-strength hurricanes, including Hurricane Camille in 1969, which dumped 31 inches of rain on central Virginia. In 2011, at least 37 tornadoes were recorded in Virginia, including one in Halifax County about 20 miles from the Coles Hill site. And in August, 2011, an earthquake of 5.8 magnitude rocked Virginia; its epicenter was just 125 miles from Coles Hill.
Virginia has no regulations for uranium mining, and, with less than 1% of the state's general fund revenues dedicated to environmental programs, is ill-prepared to sufficiently oversee the industry. The federal government has virtually no experience regulating uranium mining in a wet climate.
The only peer‐reviewed study of the issue, conducted by the National Academy of Sciences, validates many of our concerns, including risks to water quality from radioactive tailings, and the fact that current federal regulations are inadequate to protect public health and the environment from potential impacts of uranium mining in Virginia. The National Academy’s work provides clear, objective evidence that the state’s ban on uranium mining should not be lifted.
Health and Economic Risks Are High
The potential health impacts of exposure to uranium and mining chemicals are well-documented in global studies of people working in and living near mines, and include lung cancer, bone cancer, leukemia, birth defects, weakened immune systems, hormone disruption, and damage to DNA, the kidneys and the liver.
Virginia Beach, which gets its drinking water from Lake Gaston, downstream of the Coles Hill site, released a study concluding that a catastrophic failure of a uranium waste containment structure at the site could contaminate the city's drinking water for as long as two years.
Establishment of a uranium industry in southern Virginia would strangle efforts to diversify the region's economy and threaten existing businesses--including agriculture, tourism, and recreational fisheries. As one study showed, the costs to Virginia in a worst-case disaster are almost double the benefits of the best-case economic scenario.
One of America's Most Endangered Rivers
The potential for mining uranium exists throughout the state; in the early 1980s, the industry leased hundreds of properties in Culpeper, Fauquier, Henry, Madison, Orange, Patrick, and Pittsylvania counties.
But the focus now is on the Coles Hill site Pittsylvania County, located in the heart of the Roanoke River watershed. In May 2011, American Rivers named the Roanoke one of the 10 most endangered rivers due to the threat of uranium mining.
SELC continues to work with the Keep the Ban Coalition and others to educate Virginia citizens and lawmakers about the dangers of uranium mining and to press the state to keep the ban.
For more information please review these reports and articles: