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Two Sides of Uranium Mining Issue

Two Sides of Uranium Mining Issue
Two Sides of Uranium Mining Issue
Two Sides of Uranium Mining Issue

Virginia has had a moratorium on uranium mining since 1982.  The decision of whether or not to lift the moratorium will likely occur this winter during Virginia’s General Assembly.  This is a complex issue with compelling arguments from both sides of the debate.  In an effort to inform its member businesses on this issue, the Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce is providing the below information to give background, facts and insight.  In the first section, information is provided by a coalition that is opposed to lifting the ban on uranium mining in the Commonwealth.  The second section is information from Virginia Uranium Inc., a firm that supports lifting the ban on mining uranium in Virginia.

Uranium Mining in Virginia;

The Impact on Hampton Roads

Uranium Mines and Mills in the United States

Of the 50 states in the United States, only 6 states have any operating uranium mines today.  Each of those states is located in the western portion of the United States in areas with very different weather, geology and nearby population density/proximity than found in the Commonwealth.  The United States has never had dedicated uranium mining east of the Mississippi River.  If uranium mining is permitted in Virginia, our Commonwealth will become the United States’ uranium mining capital east of the Mississippi River.

Independent Scientific Studies Recognize the Risks

Two independent studies have been conducted under the request of the Virginia Coal and Energy Commission. The independent National Academy of Sciences Uranium Mining in Virginia Study was clear:

∘  “If the Commonwealth of Virginia removes the moratorium on uranium mining, there are steep hurdles to be surmounted before mining and processing could be established in a way that is appropriately protective of the health and safety of workers, the public and the environment.  There is only limited experience with modern underground and open pit uranium mining and processing in the United States, and no such experience in Virginia.   

∘ “Furthermore, Virginia is subject to relatively frequent storms that produce intense rainfall.  It is questionable whether currently-engineered tailings repositories could be expected to prevent erosion and surface and groundwater contamination for as long as 1,000 years.  Natural events, such as hurricanes, earthquakes, intense rainfall, or drought could lead to the release of contaminants if facilities are not designed and constructed to withstand such events, or if they fail to perform as designed.  The failure of a tailings facility could lead to significant human health and environmental effects.” 

The independent Chmura Economics and Analytics report was similarly alarming in stating:

∘ “The history of uranium mining in America indicates the potential for extremely harmful effects to both public health and the environment.” 

∘  “Uranium mining and milling operations unambiguously increase the exposure of the public and the environment to mildly radioactive substances, toxic chemicals, heavy metals and other carcinogenic material.  Even under the best of circumstances, Chmura judges some adverse health effects and environmental contamination is likely. 


The Risks associated with Uranium Mining and Milling and the Storage of Radioactive Tailings and the Potential Impact on Hampton Roads

Uranium must be extracted from surrounding ore rock when mined. The rock must be crushed, grinded and chemically treated to extract the uranium. The remaining waste rock as it is commonly referred continues to be radioactive and emit radioactive particulates that can be transmitted into the air, soil and underground water that in turn flows into and contaminates larger bodies of nearby water.

In the milling process waste known as tailings are produced. Tailings retain 85% of their radioactivity indefinitely. The tailings have to be stored and are monitored and regulated for 1,000 years. The large above ground swimming pool like structures are a real and proven potential source of water contamination. Tailings can spill out into the waterways anytime there is a leak in the structure, a natural disaster such as a heavy rain, earthquake or the effects of a hurricane cause the pool to overflow or  the structure collapses, leaks, or malfunctions.

Accidents and naturally occurring events for which we are unprepared or don’t know will impact the tailing storage have and will occur in the future and therein lies a huge risk to the safety and health of the people who not only live in the vicinity of the mine and mill but also to the safety and health of the people who use and consume water from bodies of water near the mine and mill. Localities in Hampton Roads use and consume water from Lake Gaston, a tributary of the rivers adjacent to the proposed mine and mill site.


Residents, Businesses and Localities in Hampton Roads are exposed to Risks

As the cities in South Hampton Roads are dependent, in considerable part, on water from the rivers that feed Lake Gaston and from which they draw water to serve their residents, businesses and military installations, the governing bodies of Virginia Beach, Norfolk, Chesapeake, Suffolk, Portsmouth and the area’s Hampton Roads Planning District Commission have studied this issue and have consequently passed resolutions opposing lifting the ban on uranium activities in Virginia.  They continue to maintain their opposition even after reviewing further proposals regarding storage of radioactive tailings.

In Hampton Roads, over 800,000 people and military instillations are at risk of becoming susceptible to contaminated water.

The Stigma Effect is also a Risk

The Chmura Economics study stated: “The most significant driver of the socioeconomic costs is not the reclamation or remediation price tag to clean up the environment, but rather the potential negative stigma effects impacting agriculture, tourism and possibly other industries.”  (Emphasis added).

Tourism fuels the economy of Hampton Roads. Visitors would be less likely to come to the region knowing that the water they will be drinking and using could be contaminated.

While the idea that the uranium produced at Coles Hill could help the United States and the Commonwealth to become more energy independent, we must remember that uranium is a commodity and in bought and sold in an international market.

The preceding was prepared by Williams Mullen, counsel for the Alliance for Progress in Southern Virginia, a pro-economic development group of businesses, farmers, educational institutions, community leaders, property owners and residents in Danville and in Pittsylvania County where the proposed uranium mine and mill at Coles Hill is located.  After considerable study, we believe that a decision to allow uranium mining, uranium milling and the storage of radioactive uranium tailings in the Commonwealth will have significant negative public health, safety and water quality due to the negative stigma affects and economic consequences for the entire Commonwealth. While the region in which the proposed mine would be located will be most impacted, communities and the people, businesses and military installations located in Hampton Roads are also at considerable risk of being affected by contamination from the uranium mine, mill and storage of radioactive tailings.



When the General Assembly meets in January 2013, Virginia will face one of the most important public policy decisions of our time – whether or not to lift Virginia’s moratorium on uranium mining. Nothing less is at stake than the economic revitalization of Southside Virginia and a unique opportunity to contribute to American energy independence and America’s transition to more environmentally sustainable sources of energy.

In 2007, a group of Southside Virginia farmers and longtime residents formed a company called Virginia Uranium, Inc. to explore the development of the Coles Hill uranium deposit in Pittsylvania County, one of the richest geologic treasures ever discovered in Virginia. These families were guided by a dream that unlocking this treasure would contribute to the long-sought economic revival of their region. Learn more about Virginia Uranium, Inc. and the Coles Hill project on the company’s website.


The Coles Hill project promises to be an economic game-changer for Southside Virginia and a major boost for the Virginia economy as a whole. Our project will generate more than 1,000 jobs across the Commonwealth, with more than 500 in Southside alone. These are highly skilled, good-paying jobs that cannot be shipped overseas and will enable workers and spin-off businesses to seriously invest in the future of our community. The project will generate nearly $5 billion in economic activity across Virginia and more than $112 million in state and local tax revenue over the 35-year life of the project.
Read the full Virginia Coal & Energy Commission Socioeconomic Study.

It is impossible to overstate the significance of this economic opportunity for the thousands of Southside residents who’ve seen their jobs disappear overseas and the hundreds of contractors and supply companies across Virginia struggling to survive in this economy. In so many ways, the Coles Hill project is a providential opportunity that has arrived at the time and place that we need it the most.


The Coles Hill project is also a unique opportunity to contribute significantly to American energy independence. Today, the U.S imports more than 90 percent of its uranium from foreign countries, including half from unreliable state-run sources.  As the U.S. and other developing countries like China and India build more nuclear reactors, the U.S. will become increasingly dependent on imports unless we develop new domestic sources of our own.  Just how significant of an impact would Coles Hill have?  There is enough uranium at Coles Hill to fuel all four of Virginia’s reactors for 75 years. To put this in a national perspective, the Coles Hill project will boost annual uranium production in the U.S. by more than 50 percent.


Finally, the Coles Hill project will contribute meaningfully to America’s transition from fossil fuels to more environmentally sustainable energy sources. Nuclear energy is the largest clean energy source in the U.S. and produces 67 percent of all emissions-free electricity in our country, and more than 90 percent in Virginia. Unlike fossil fuels, nuclear energy does not produce carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to climate change, nor does it generate air and water pollution from mercury and sulfur dioxide that endangers our health.


But, Virginia Uranium fully understands that the economic promise of the Coles Hill project and the environmental benefits of nuclear energy mean nothing if we don’t conduct the Coles Hill operation in a safe and environmentally responsible way. Virginia Uranium’s commitment to protecting the environment and public health of Virginia is more than just a professional commitment; it is a deeply personal commitment to the community in which we all live and are raising our families. For the Coles and Bowens families that founded Virginia Uranium, environmental stewardship is a deeply ingrained way of life that has sustained generations of farmers in Southside Virginia.


Our company fully recognizes the concerns expressed by some Hampton Roads communities about the impact our project could have on their drinking water. Specifically, some communities are concerned that if our company stored mill tailings in above-ground impoundments, heavy storms or floods could wash tailings into downstream drinking waters in Hampton Roads. Most of these concerns are based on a 2011 Virginia Beach study that caused serious alarm when it identified historic examples of above-ground tailings dam failures from the 1960s and 70s.

We have heard these concerns loud-and-clear and fully recognize our responsibility to address them. This is why our company has firmly and publicly committed to storing all mill tailings below ground, where tailings cannot be released to surface waters and will be permanently isolated from storms, floods and other adverse weather conditions. Watch a short video about below-ground tailings storage.

The National Academy of Sciences and regulators in the U.S. and Canada all agree that putting tailings below-ground is the safest, most effective way to prevent releases to surface waters. Public officials in Virginia Beach, Norfolk, Portsmouth and other Hampton Roads localities have also acknowledged that the below-ground method is the safest and most effective way to address their concerns. Read the full National Academy of Sciences Study on Uranium Mining in Virginia.

For more than 30 years, below-ground tailings disposal has been used successfully in modern uranium mining operations across Canada. As the names of Canada’s uranium mines suggest – Elliot Lake, Rabbit Lake, Cigar Lake – many of that country’s mines are completely surrounded by large surface water bodies. Since the below-ground method was adopted 30 years ago, Canada’s regulators say there have been no negative impacts to lakes or other surface waters near uranium mining operations. In fact, Canada’s uranium mines boast a 100 percent compliance record with Canada’s strict air and water quality standards, compared to just 67 percent for the country’s other metal mines. Learn more about uranium mining in Canada on the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission website.

In the U.S., regulatory standards for tailings are just as stringent. Before our company receives a single license to operate, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission must certify that our tailings cells are capable of withstanding severe storms and flooding without releasing any tailings to surface waters. Learn more about U.S. regulatory standards for tailings on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission website.

By adopting the best practices recommended by the National Academy of Sciences and committing to storing all tailings below ground, we hope to reassure the residents of Hampton Roads that their water will remain safe to drink and is not at any risk from uranium mining. The environmental performance of the uranium mining industry over the last 30 years proves that we can do this safely and in a way that protects our water. In doing so, we can harness our natural resources to create economic prosperity, help America achieve energy independence and reduce our nation’s reliance on fossil fuels.

Submitted by VUI

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