Uranium Mining - A Risky Experiment

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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Conservation groups weigh in to preserve Virginia ban on uranium mining More »

SELC filed a brief this week on behalf of the Roanoke River Basin Association and the Dan River Basin Association defending against an industry challenge to Virginia’s 33-year-old statutory ban on uranium mining.  

Last August, Virginia Uranium, Inc. (VUI) sued the Commonwealth of Virginia with the unsubstantiated legal claim that the moratorium—on the books since 1982—is suddenly unconstitutional. The lawsuit represents a wholesale reversal of VUI’s earlier position, when the company’s CEO pledged in a local newspaper that, if it was found “that uranium mining would entail unacceptable risks, we will not pursue lifting the moratorium.”

Now that VUI has broken that pledge, conservation groups are in court supporting the state ban, and representing the wishes of locals who know that vibrant and healthy rivers are critical for promoting tourism, fishing, boating, and a strong, Southside economy. VUI is looking to exploit a uranium deposit in Southeastern Virginia’s Pittsylvania County, which lies in the watershed of the Roanoke and Dan Rivers.  

“Despite its earlier commitment to abide by the legislative process, VUI now wants to strip the General Assembly of its ability regulate its own affairs and require Virginia to allow uranium mining ,” said Staff Attorney Will Cleveland.

The groups’ amicus brief was filed in advance of a hearing this Friday, Nov. 6 on the state’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit and VUI’s cross motion for summary judgment.

Watch NBC29 coverage of the hearing featuring Cale Jaffe, Director of SELC's Virginia office.

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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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