Maintain ban on uranium mining

Virginia Pilot Editorial – December 16, 2012

Article: http://hamptonroads.com/2012/12/maintain-ban-uranium-mining

State lawmakers have no shortage of research to help inform a decision about whether to repeal Virginia’s 30-year-old moratorium on uranium mining.

The latest report, issued last month by Gov. Bob McDonnell’s uranium working group, is full of information about the scope and depth of a new regulatory framework to oversee an operation like the one proposed at Coles Hill, the Pittsylvania County property holding 119 million pounds of uranium ore. That uranium would be trucked out of state and enriched into fuel for nuclear power plants.

Advocates tout the reserve near Chatham as an opportunity to boost an economically depressed area, diversify the nation’s energy portfolio and increase revenue to the state.

Lifting the ban also would finally allow property owner Walter Coles Sr. to reap the fortune – as much as $7 billion – beneath his home and land.

They contend that science has so advanced that risk of a mining disaster is effectively eliminated; the past 25 years have brought new technologies capable of safeguarding the environment and public health.

Opponents have said, correctly, that substantial risk is inherent in mining and milling uranium, and that even after the mine closes, the risks of long-term storage of radioactive tailings will demand public monitoring for millennia.

Virginia’s moratorium was enacted in 1982 to prevent mining at Coles Hill before lawmakers could determine whether it was safe. By the time studies concluded, the market for uranium had fallen and interest waned.

The market is now better. And the interest in nuclear power remains steady.

Sen. John Watkins, a Republican from Midlothian, announced recently that he will introduce a bill next month to end the moratorium.

The latest advisory group, he said, reached a conclusion similar to its predecessor’s, which noted in a 1985 report that “the moratorium on uranium development can be lifted if essential works of the (group) are enacted into law.”

That is the same logic offered by uranium supporters today, and it is as flawed now as it was then. Optimistic assertions about safety and risk at a Coles Hill mine belie the reality of scientific discovery and technological advancement. History is rife with examples where every imaginable safeguard was in place before the unimaginable happened. The debate, therefore, becomes one of benefit and risk.

Republican Del. Don Merricks, who represents the Chatham area in the state House of Delegates, described the battle over lifting the moratorium as among the most important decisions of his life, and one that is ripping apart his community.

The mine at Coles Hill could be a boon to the region. One study has projected that over 35 years, the mine would support 1,000 jobs annually and help pump $135 million into the local economy each year.

As enticing as that may be, even the Danville Pittsylvania County Chamber of Commerce opposes efforts to end the state moratorium on uranium mining, spurred by concern for existing businesses, public health and the environment.

Merricks has said the prospect of the mine has harmed economic activity, including home sales and efforts to attract businesses, in the Danville region. The risk to groundwater is nagging, and many worry about the radioactive waste produced during the milling process.

Those risks are troubling to the people who live there, and even more so for the folks working in the area’s most lucrative industry, agriculture, which could be jeopardized by a catastrophe at a uranium mine on Coles Hill.

A study under way at the University of Virginia’s Weldon-Cooper Center for Public Service to establish agriculture’s value to the Danville area isn’t scheduled to be finished until January. But statewide, the industry’s annual economic impact is estimated at $55 billion.

Virginia Uranium Inc., Coles’ company, has spent more than $200,000 in the past five years lobbying state officials to lift the moratorium.

The company has flown lawmakers to an inactive uranium mine in France and an active operation in remote northern Canada to highlight instances where the ore has been extracted safely.

But as the National Academy of Sciences noted in its 2011 study of uranium mining in Virginia, no other mine in the world shares the same geologic, climatic and geographic characteristics as Coles Hill.

Uranium mining in the U.S. has been restricted to the more arid Western states; Canada’s mines are far removed from major population centers; the mine site in France isn’t susceptible to the same kind of extreme weather as Virginia.

Private wells and Lake Gaston, a source of drinking water for about 1 million people in South Hampton Roads, are downstream from Coles Hill.

Although Virginia Uranium Inc.’s plans for storing radioactive tailings underground appear to eliminate the risk of contaminating the watershed, the possibility has spurred officials in Virginia Beach and Norfolk to oppose lifting the moratorium.

They have acknowledged municipal facilities are capable of treating contaminated water and bringing it into compliance with federal safety standards but insist current laws would prevent them from pumping contaminated water into a local reservoir. Even if they can, they’ve said public perception of the water as contaminated would be devastating for life and business in Hampton Roads.

Mining poses significant risks to the environment and public health, and a uranium mine at Coles Hill would magnify those risks.

Meanwhile, there is no urgent need to tap the reserve at Coles Hill; existing, known global uranium reserves provide more than a 50-year supply, and technology exists to develop nuclear facilities powered by recycling nuclear waste.

The National Academy of Sciences’ report on the matter noted obstacles that would need to be overcome to reduce the potential for harm, including creation of a regulatory framework – estimated to cost $3 million to $5 million annually – and preparation for rare, but catastrophic, events such as tornadoes, hurricanes and earthquakes.

“It is questionable,” the panel wrote, “whether currently-engineered tailings repositories could be expected to prevent erosion and surface and groundwater contamination for as long as 1,000 years.”

Virginia isn’t unique among states dogged by regulatory failures, but a uranium mine is different.

It not only requires heightened vigilance during the operation of the mine, but perpetual oversight of a property that, as Merricks noted, is “essentially a Superfund waste site forever.” The burden of that oversight, ultimately, will fall on taxpayers.

Lawmakers must recognize that a finite, financial benefit isn’t worth the infinite expense associated with lifting Virginia’s moratorium.

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