Uranium Mining - A Risky Experiment

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.


Photo © Katherine Vance

The proposed mining site was in the path of Hurricane Fran in 1996. Hurricanes and other severe weather events can overwhelm waste systems.


Photo © NOAA

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SELC defending Virginia uranium mining ban against repeated industry attacks More »

As Virginia Uranium, Inc. continues refusing to take no for an answer, SELC and our partners, the Dan River Basin Association and the Roanoke River Basin Association, remain engaged in protecting Virginia’s ban on uranium mining.

The company, which hoped to mine a uranium deposit north of Danville, has been rebuffed at every turn since they first attempted to bring risky mining practices to the area in 2007. This, despite a uranium mining ban in place since 1982. Nonetheless, the company persists, making more outrageous claims as they go. Already SELC and our allies succeeded in blocking attempts by Virginia Uranium, Inc. (VUI) to pass legislation to lift the state freeze on uranium mining. Now the company is challenging the ban with state and federal lawsuits.

The case moving through state courts examines the question of whether, by banning uranium mining, the state unconstitutionally took away the value of VUI’s property. The parent company, Canadian-based Virginia Energy Resources, implausibly argued, in part, that it should be compensated for potential revenue lost through a mining ban that was in place long before the company formed. SELC filed a “friend of the court” brief in the case, supporting the Commonwealth’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit. Accordingly, the court in Wise County has already dismissed any claims for compensation, and the only issue still pending is whether the court will order state agencies to accept and process uranium mining permit applications. 

Not long ago, SELC also filed a “friend of the court” brief in VUI’s federal case, laying out in detail how the company’s tortured reading of the Atomic Energy Act would radically expand its scope and force not only Virginia but all states to allow uranium mining. The brief also pointed out that the company’s claims were contrary to its own past public statements, which acknowledge that there are no federal laws or regulations covering conventional uranium mining on private lands and that this is an area of exclusive state control. In December, the federal district court agreed with us, dismissing VUI’s motion, and the company has since appealed. SELC has also filed a “friend of the court” brief in the appellate litigation.

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Keep the Ban on Uranium Mining in Virginia

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.

High Health and Economic Risks

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.

Ad Campaign

SELC and its Keep the Ban coalition partners ran ads in the Danville Register & Bee and Chatham Star-Tribune extolling the environmental and economic assets of Southern Virginia that could be compromised should the current ban on uranium mining in Virginia be lifted.  These ads feature the region's strong tourism, recreation, and agriculture that would be threatened by uranium mining.  In addition, over 60 governments, businesses, and organizations have passed resolutions to support continuation of the ban.  

For More Information

A Summary of Key Findings from the National Academy of Sciences’ report, Uranium Mining in Virginia

Virginia Law Review article by former SELC Senior Attorney Kay Slaughter: Will Uranium Get a Glowing Welcome in Virginia?

Sunday Q&A with SELC's Cale Jaffe (Richmond Times-Dispatch)

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