World experts on uranium mining featured at Richmond forum
More than 150 people attended a symposium in Richmond today to hear from five experts from around the world on the human, environmental and economic impacts of uranium mining. The experts have witnessed first-hand the operations and impacts of uranium mines in the U.S. and around the globe, and have written extensively on issues of water quality and health consequences, as well as economic and community impacts.
A proposal to mine uranium in Pittsylvania County, Virginia – thought to be the largest deposit in the U.S. – has brought the issue front-and-center in the state over the last several years. Virginia has banned uranium mining since the early 1980s when the deposit was discovered; Virginia Uranium Inc. is seeking to overturn the ban. The National Academy of Sciences is about to begin an 18-month study, as requested by the Virginia Coal and Energy Commission, to determine whether uranium mining and milling can be done safely in Virginia.
One of the experts, Doug Brugge, professor in the Department of Public Health and Community Medicine at Tufts University School of Medicine, said the body of evidence of health impacts of exposure to uranium continues to grow. Uranium, a heavy metal, is known to cause kidney damage and birth defects in animals, while other contaminants in uranium ore can cause cancer.
“It's a heavy metal, a chemical toxin, like lead and mercury and cadmium,” Brugge told the audience. “We're not at the end of the road, there's probably more to be found.” He discussed recent studies from around the world showing even low levels of uranium have health impacts, and that, aided by new genetic technology, researchers are learning more about how uranium changes genetic processes.
Brugge also said that current drinking water standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency are insufficient. EPA sets 30 ug/L as safe to drink; the World Health Organization standard is half that, yet a health-based standard would be about 2 ug/L. “In regards to current standards, I would be skeptical about their adequacy to adequately protect people,” Brugge said.
Paul Robinson, research director of the Southwest Research & Information Center in New Mexico, said that most open-pit uranium mines generate five to 10 times the amount of waste rock as uranium ore, and that the milling process to separate the usable uranium from the waste rock also generates massive amounts of waste, called “tailings.” Uranium waste is contaminated with both toxic chemicals as well as radiation, and can spread through the air, surface water or groundwater to nearby communities.
Potential mining in Pittsylvania County could have a number of negative economic impacts, he said, including lowered property values, and decreased markets for the region's agricultural products. “The perception of risk is very important in marketing, and that has a socio-economic impact on neighbors (of a uranium mine).”
Robinson also discussed the global uranium market, saying that supply has outstripped demand in recent years, and that that trend will continue. The world uses roughly 65,000 tons of uranium a year – enough for 80 to 100 years at current consumption rates.
Other speakers included Gordon Edwards, with the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility, Rianne Teule with Greenpeace International, and Manuel Pino, a professor of American Indian Studies at Scottsdale Community College in Arizona and a member of the Acoma Pueblo, a Native American community hard-hit by health damage among its members who worked at what was the world's largest uranium mine for 30 years until it closed in 1982.
The symposium was sponsored by the Dan River Basin Association, Friends of the Earth, Piedmont Environmental Council, Sierra Club, Virginia Chapter, Southern Environmental Law Center, Virginia Conservation Network, and Virginia Interfaith Power & Light. A video of the symposium will be available next week.