Debate Continues on Uranium Mining Proposed Only 50 Miles From Roanoke

Sherman Lea speaks at the uranium mining forum that attracted several hundred participants to Virginia Western

Mine Operations Would be Only Just 12 Miles From Smith Mountain Lake

 Virginia’s moratorium on uranium mining and whether or not it should be lifted was the subject of a pro-and-con discussion at Virginia Western Community College last Friday.  The Public Forum on Uranium Mining in Virginia, centered around a large deposit of uranium found in Pittsylvania County that a Canadian company (Virginia Mining Inc.) wants to mine, was sponsored by the Cabell Brand Center for Global Poverty and Resource Sustainability.

The so-called “Coles Hill Uranium Find” in Pittsylvania County, located about 50 miles from Roanoke, has spurred a debate: Is it safe to mine uranium, used in nuclear reactors and in weapon systems, or is it too risky, considering that it is a radioactive material? What if the tailing ponds, used to contain bits of uranium left behind in the mining process, failed? Would the water table be contaminated? Is there a risk of airborne radioactivity, as bits of uranium carried off in dust from the mining site  ends up affecting nearby residents or others – in Roanoke perhaps – depending on prevailing wind patterns?

“At the end of the day we’ll be so much better informed on the implications of uranium mining in Virginia,” said Rupert Cutler, the former Roanoke City Councilman who gave opening remarks. Cutler, an opponent of lifting the state’s ban on uranium mining, called the forum, attended by several hundred, “preparation,” for future legislation in the General Assembly.

Current council member Sherman Lea, who grew up in Pittsylvania County, said he had spoken to residents there recently about the prospect of lawmakers allowing uranium mining at Coles Hill. “They are frightened…we should be concerned,” said Lea, who went on record as opposing any mining of uranium there.  Coles Hill is just 12 miles from Smith Mountain Lake and 50 from Roanoke, noted Lea: “how much radioactive dust [from the mine site] are we willing to accept?” he asked.

Cities liked Virginia Beach and Norfolk have voted in resolutions to oppose uranium mining in the Commonwealth; ironically Lea said he voted against a similar measure at a Roanoke City Council meeting because the one year moratorium extension in the resolution “didn’t go far enough.”  Yes, the mine could bring more jobs to impoverished Southside, “but at what cost?” asked Lea.

Dr. Peter DeFur, who helped assemble a National Research Committee study on uranium deposits and the safety of mining them in Virginia, said there are small caches of the rare ore all over the state, with the find at Coles Hill being the most commercially viable. Much more care is taken now in the planning of uranium mines noted DeFur; who said they are over-engineered in an effort to be safe. There hasn’t been any planning for a new mind in Virginia for 30 years, “because of the General Assembly.”

DeFur said the report was not prepared to take sides in the uranium mining debate, but he allowed himself to inject a personal opinion on the subject. There has never been a uranium mine in the eastern United States; conditions are hazardous for workers there and runoff from the site due to Virginia’s relatively heavy rainfall could mean problems for the water table. What happens if a natural disaster, such as a flood or earthquake, hits Coles Hill he asked. Radioactive particles can also alter a person’s DNA, according to DeFur. “I don’t see how we can [approve uranium mining] – I hope we don’t.”

Local activist Freeda Cathcart was among the other speakers, which also included Dr. Cynda Johnson, president of the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine. Cathcart, a former insurance broker and claims processor, said Virginia Mining Inc. would reap all of the benefits from a uranium mine in Pittsylvania County while the residents would have to deal with the risk.

If the price of uranium falls, “It’s not going to be cost effective to mine any more. Then they’ve opened up the earth and left this hole…it costs a lot of money to take care of that.”  Cathcart, an unsuccessful Democrat candidate for the General Assembly last year, said Pittsylvania County “does not want,” the jobs that would be created by a uranium mining operation.

The pro-mining viewpoint was given by Dr, Peter Bodnar, a professor of geosciences at Virginia Tech. Bodnar, named Virginia’s 2010 Scientist of the Year by Governor Bob McDonnell, said uranium can be mined safely, as the track record elsewhere shows, and with 90 percent of the uranium now used for the 104 nuclear reactors in the country imported, it would also be a job creator that could help the country achieve energy independence. “We could end unemployment if we became energy independent,” Bodnar declared.

“Question everything that your hear,” said Bodnar, who called the session an “anti-uranium mining forum,” good –naturedly.  Nuclear power plants that use refined uranium for fuel can also help wean the country away from coal-fired plants said Bodnar, who contends that assumptions about any failure at Coles Hill and the effect on surrounding communities are not technically valid. It’s a “complete fallacy,” that ground water nearby or even in Roanoke would be affected by any operation in Pittsylvania County, according to Bodnar.

The debate goes on as both opponents and proponents keep an eye on the General Assembly, which could take up the debate at its next session. “Show me the scientific evidence that supports [the ban],” Bodnar asked, “we need to look at the facts and get away from being emotional.”

By Gene Marrano