Uranium Mining - A Risky Experiment
Federal court upholds Virginia’s ban on uranium mining More »
It’s 35 years and counting now that Virginia has vigorously defended a ban on uranium mining. In a legal win for the Commonwealth and communities in Southern Virginia, a federal court upheld a ruling to throw out a suit brought by Virginia Uranium, Inc. and its Canadian parent company aimed at forcing the state to start accepting uranium mining permits.
The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the district court decision that the suit had no merit, citing: “Federal law does not preempt state regulations of conventional uranium mining.”
SELC filed an amicus brief on behalf of the Dan River Basin Association and the Roanoke River Basin Association in support of the state’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit.
“The court wisely found no merit to VUI’s tortured reading of federal law, and this is a great bulwark against VUI’s repeated attempts to force uranium mining onto Virginians, despite clear and united opposition against bringing this risky endeavor into our state,” said SELC Staff Attorney Will Cleveland. “This is another win for Virginia communities that know vibrant and healthy rivers are critical for promoting tourism, fishing, boating, and a strong, Southside economy.”
There is no precedent for large-scale uranium mining in the East, where population density and a wet climate increase the chance of radiation contaminating streams and groundwater and exposure to humans. More than 60 local governments, businesses, and organizations have passed resolutions to support continuation of the ban.
VUI’s lawsuit alleged that the federal Atomic Energy Act preempted state law on uranium mining even though the Atomic Energy Act does not regulate uranium mining.
The ruling marks another loss for VUI’s ongoing efforts to mine a uranium deposit north of Danville, despite a uranium mining ban in place since 1982. Conservation and local groups succeeded in blocking attempts by VUI to pass legislation in 2013 to lift the state freeze on uranium mining. The company responded by challenging the ban with state and federal lawsuits against the Commonwealth of Virginia.
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.
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
Sunday Q&A with SELC's Cale Jaffe (Richmond Times-Dispatch)
Community Groups Applaud Court Decision to Uphold Uranium Mining Ban
Broad Coalition of Groups Applauds General Assembly’s Rejection of Legislation to Lift Virginia’s Ban on
Support Grows to Maintain Virginia’s Longstanding Uranium Ban
Press Statement on Behalf of the Keep The Ban Coalition on Release of the 2012 Uranium Working Group Report
SELC and Former DEQ Director Bob Burnley Respond to Gov. McDonnell’s Announcement on Uranium Mining
NAS Report Validates Major Environmental, Health Concerns Raised by Uranium Mining Opponents
Roanoke River Among America's Most Endangered Rivers
Over 100 Virginians Expected to Tell Meeting of National Science Panel to "Keep the Ban" on Uranium Mining and Milling
World experts on uranium mining featured at Richmond forum