Over 100 Virginians Expected to Tell Meeting of National Science Panel to “Keep the Ban” on Uranium
More than 100 citizens from around the Commonwealth were expected to turn out today for a National Academy of Sciences (NAS) meeting in Richmond to support keeping a statewide ban on uranium mining and milling in Virginia that has been in place for almost 30 years.
The citizens oppose a proposal by Virginia Uranium, Inc. (VUI) to develop the largest known untapped uranium deposit in the U.S., in Pittsylvania County in the Roanoke River watershed. Among other concerns, the opponents say that, based on a history of frequent severe storms, hurricanes and flooding in the area, the project poses a severe risk of contaminating water resources for miles downstream, including the drinking water supply for at least 1.9 million people in Southside Virginia, Virginia Beach, Norfolk, Chesapeake and North Carolina.
The NAS, at the request of the Virginia Coal and Energy Commission, is collecting and reviewing existing data and information about uranium production in order to assist the state in determining whether to lift the current ban, which was put into effect in 1982 when a Canadian company first proposed mining in Pittsylvania County and possibly other sites in the state. Today’s meeting is the last to be held by the NAS panel in Virginia; it is scheduled to meet later this year in Colorado and Canada.
“This scientific review is critically important, but the ultimate responsibility for protecting Virginia’s water quality rests squarely with the General Assembly,” said Cale Jaffe, senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. “The threat to downstream communities like Virginia Beach is real. We expect our elected officials to take sufficient time to weigh the evidence about these threats before taking any action.”
While in Richmond for the day, several of the citizens had scheduled appointments with their legislators, including Del. Lee Ware, chairman of the commission’s Uranium Sub-committee, to urge them to keep the ban. They hope to counter a push by VUI to accelerate the process with legislation to lift the ban next year. Recent news reports have shown that VUI was the 2nd highest entity in terms of gifts to Virginia lawmakers last year.
Citizens are concerned about the potential for severe health risks from drinking water that could be contaminated by radioactivity and toxic chemicals used in the process of extracting uranium ore and milling it into yellowcake. They are also concerned about tainting the region’s agricultural heritage and growing tourism sector, as well as lost opportunities to diversify and expand the local economy by recruiting new businesses and retaining existing ones.
“This is more than a matter of protecting our environment-this is a matter of justice,” said Naomi Hodge-Muse, president of the Martinsville Henry County Voters League and the Martinsville NAACP. “If we are going to rebuild the Southside community, we need good quality, well-paying jobs that do not poison our community. A uranium mine and mill would discourage these types of jobs from coming to our area.”
“After learning about the health and safety threats posed by a uranium mine and mill, I knew this was not a legacy I wanted to leave for my community,” said Bill Speiden, an Orange County farmer and former chairman of the Orange Planning Commission, whose land registers high levels of radioactivity, and who turned down a Canadian mining company’s leasing offer on his property when it was first discovered in the 1980s. “Since then, a coalition of interests in Orange County, including farming interests, town councils and concerned neighbors, support retaining the moratorium on uranium mining and milling in Virginia in the interests of public health, safety and welfare.” The county Board of Supervisors is also on record in support of keeping the ban.
“Virginia’s wet climate and unpredictable weather make uranium production a risky experiment. Uranium mining in the U.S. has primarily occurred in dry, sparsely populated regions of the arid Southwest. Severe weather events-like Tropical Storm Gaston, which dumped 14 inches of rain on Richmond-could overwhelm uranium operations,” said Mary Rafferty, of the Sierra Club Virginia Chapter.
A Virginia Beach study released last week finds that in the event of a catastrophic failure of a uranium tailings containment structure, radioactivity concentrations in the Roanoke River and Kerr Lake systems will exceed the federal Safe Water Drinking Act levels for an extended period of time. The Virginia Beach City Council has voted in support of keeping the ban.