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Column: Uranium Mining in Virginia

Virginia has one of the largest deposits of uranium of anyplace in the country in Pittsylvania County in the southern part of the state. The location of Coles Hill Farm where the deposit is centered is in the Roanoke River watershed. There are smaller deposits of uranium in other parts of the state including the Piedmont region.

Because of the risks to public health, Virginia enacted a ban on uranium mining in the state in 1982 that is still in place today. With increased prices for the sale of uranium there has been renewed interest in mining the uranium that is in Virginia. In 2007, Virginia Uranium, Inc. announced plans to seek to lift the ban in Virginia in order that uranium could be mined in the state. A study was undertaken by the National Academy of Sciences to determine the safety of lifting the ban.

There is no precedent for large-scale uranium mining in the eastern part of the United States where population density and a wet climate increase the chance of radiation contaminating streams and groundwater and exposure to humans, as the Southern Environmental Law Center pointed out. They go on to state that in the last century Virginia has been hit by at least 78 category-strength hurricanes, and in 2011 there were 37 tornadoes in the state including one within 20 miles of the proposed mining site. The earthquake in Virginia in August, 2011, of 5.l8 whose effects were felt all the way to New York had its epicenter just 125 miles from the proposed site.

In addition to the National Academy study, the City of Virginia Beach which gets its drinking water from Lake Gaston downstream of the Coles Hill site funded a study finding 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.

Although legislation to lift the ban has been talked about, the serious concerns about the health risks and the strong community opposition have kept any bills from being debated. Despite the fact that the legislature has not acted, Governor Bob McDonnell appointed a task force to write regulations that would need to be met if the ban was lifted. That group is now at work and has been strongly criticized for the lack of transparency in its work. There is a great likelihood that the regulations that are developed will be used as a justification for lifting the ban. There are well-funded industry lobbyists at work actively looking for ways to get around the ban. Environmental groups are also actively working to keep the ban in place.

The threat to human health outweighs any arguments for lifting the ban. I remain opposed to lifting the ban and will be sensitive to any efforts to circumvent the ban through the regulatory process.