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

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. Turned away by the General Assembly the company filed a federal lawsuit arguing Virginia lacked the authority to ban uranium mining. The United States Supreme Court on June 17, 2019 upheld Virginia's ban on this dangerous practice. SELC submitted an amicus curiae, or "friend of the court", brief in the case on behalf of the Roanoke River Basin Association, Dan River Basin Association and Piedmont Environmental Council supporting Virginia's defense of its uranium mining ban.

Uranium Mining: A Dangerous Proposal

Uranium occurs naturally in the ground, but the uranium deposit at Cole Hill is extremely poor quality, which means a mining operation would require an unusually extensive about of excavation of earth and rock. Such a massive earth-moving operation would expose uranium to air and water, which would in turn release radiation into the environment. There is no precedent for conducting large-scale uranium mining in the East, with its current population density and wet climate, which increase the chance that a mining operation would contaminate streams and groundwater and expose humans to radiation.

In the last century, at least 78 category-strength hurricanes have hit the Commonwealth, 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 is no backstop since it does not regulate the kind of uranium mining proposed here.

The only peer-reviewed study of the issue, conducted by the National Academy of Sciences, validates many of our concerns, including 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 we must preserve the state’s ban on uranium mining.

High Health and Economic Risks 

According to well-documented global studies, working in and living near uranium mining operations carries severe health risks, including lung cancer, bone cancer, leukemia, birth defects, weakened immune systems, hormone disruption, and damage to DNA, the kidneys and the liver.

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

These risks exist throughout the state, not just at Coles Hill. 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.

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 featured the region's strong tourism, recreation, and agriculture that would be threatened by uranium mining.  In addition, over 60 governments, businesses, and organizations passed resolutions to support 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)