Virginia divided over vast uranium deposit
CHATHAM, Va. — The rolling fields of Coles Hill were once full of tobacco. Along with furniture and textiles, the leaf sustained farmers, blue collar workers and families in this area of Virginia known as Southside.
All three industries are in decline now, and the region typically leads the state in unemployment. But something beneath the fields — something you can't see — could be Southside's salvation.
Uranium — enough to power every nuclear power plant in the United States for 2 1⁄2 years — lies under these fields where dozens of cattle grazed on a drizzly winter day.
Geologist Patrick M. Wales walked the field's fence line with a Geiger counter to illustrate what hundreds of jobs sound like. He stooped to clear layers of wet leaves from a culvert, then cradled the detector in the middle of the trough he made. The instrument that had rhythmically clicked like a cicada seconds before now emitted a steady, piercing shriek.
The deposit runs deep, about 1,500 feet. “This is really one of the areas where it just happens to pop up to the surface,” Wales said.
The ore detected by the Geiger counter is the tip of an iceberg that is the largest known uranium deposit in the United States and among the largest in the world.
Now a company's bid to mine the 119 million pounds of the radioactive ore has churned up the political landscape in Virginia. Virginia's General Assembly is taking up the fiercely debated issue this session, and it's a coin flip whether it will clear the way for the state to become the first on the East Coast to mine uranium.
Most uranium mining in the country has occurred in the arid West. Virginia is prone to tropical tempests, and opponents fear a catastrophic storm could develop into an environmental nightmare if the mining and processing of the ore was allowed. Drenching rains and winds could carry radioactive waste to local waters that are used for drinking supplies in the state's largest city, Virginia Beach, and others in southeastern Virginia, they argue.
“We're looking at an extraordinary high-stakes gamble, and it's not a gamble the state of Virginia should take,” said Cale Jaffe, a leading voice against mining and director of the Charlottesville office of the Southern Environmental Law Center.
It's not the mining that stirs the most concern, but the so-called milling — the separation of the ore from hard rock.
Virginia Uranium, the company seeking the right to mine, has committed to storing the waste in below-ground containment cells that it says would minimize the risk of the radioactive waste being released to local wells or public drinking sources.
Opponents have not been appeased.
They include the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation, the state's largest farm lobby and traditionally pro-business; the NAACP; church groups; municipal organizations; water-protection groups; and every environmental organization of note in the state.
Delegate Donald Merricks, a Republican whose district includes Pittsylvania County, says adding mining jobs got his interest but not his support.
For him, it comes down to this: “How do you define safe?”
“I know you cannot 100 percent guarantee anything to be safe, but I think you need to have some reasonable assurances that the process is not going to contaminate the environment,” he said.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Pentagon leery of Russia’s ‘hybrid warfare’
- Some Texans fear military training mission has ulterior motives at Obama’s direction
- Obama’s planned trip to Ethiopia riles some emigres
- Arizona prison says 700 inmates again ‘refusing to comply’
- Anti-Clinton crowd looks left to Sanders
- Volunteers key in marine rescues
- 66 riders safely evacuated as 400-foot Ferris wheel stops in Florida
- Believers at S.C. church acknowledge pain, anger challenge their tenets
- Diebold, heirs of Prohibition agent Ness squabble over stock find
- After years in obscurity, Medal of Honor recipient to be reburied with military honors
- After year of Washington legal pot sales, taxes top $70M