A group of African American pastors from Southwest Virginia is joining a list of elected and civic organizations asking the General Assembly to place a permanent ban on uranium mining in the Commonwealth.
The pastors gathered in Roanoke City Council Chambers to announce they’ve signed a resolution to that effect. “When we mean permanent, we do mean permanent-forever, never”, said Rev. Bill Lee of Loudon Avenue Christian Church. “But we know that [with] political machines – it might come back in five year, 10 years, and we’ll just keep coming back through chambers like this and say, ‘no’.”
At issue is 119 million pounds of uranium in a field in Coles Hill, near Chatham in Pittsylvania County, 40 miles from Roanoke.
He says pastors in the Roanoke Valley are concerned because they have friends and colleagues in that area. “I just hear Martin Luther King’s voice clearly, ‘What affects one, affects all’.”
Lee says congregants are taking cues from the pulpit, “that this is an area where if we’re going to talk, especially me, about preventive health, those of us who vote need to have our voice heard beyond Election Day.” He says the congregations are being educated about the matter and that members are clear how their leaders feel about it.
Roanoke City Councilman and Elder Sherman Lea was born in Pittsylvania County and says Virginia shouldn’t take the risk of mining uranium because it’s “uniquely dangerous” with the area’s geological structure. He also pointed to a South Carolina study that found African Americans may be more likely than their European counterparts to develop cancer as a result of consuming groundwater containing high levels of dissolved uranium.
Lea, who is Associate Minister of the Garden of Prayer in Roanoke, says the proposed project would also negatively affect the area economically – with businesses finding it harder to hire and retain workers; environmental-damage to groundwater and surface water would taint the agricultural products – and fiscally, with Virginia picking up the tab for monitoring and maintaining the radioactive waste storage sites at Coles Hill-forever. He says contaminated water would also flow into the Roanoke River and Lake Gaston which he says has people as far away as Norfolk concerned about the proposed project.
Rev. Amy Ziglar of Mr. Zion A. M. E. Church in Roanoke wants to send a message to state lawmakers. “Those legislators who have not taken a stand – they know who they are – if they’ve not taken a stand because they’re saying that they don’t know what the black community wants, we the ministers of the churches are taking a stand to let them know that something has to happen and what our stand is. So any legislator who has not said what side of the fence he’s on, or she’s on, know that this is the side of the fence that they need to be on to keep the ban on uranium mining.”
Virginia lawmakers are expected to vote during the upcoming legislation session on whether to keep the 30 year moratorium in place or to allow mining. Officials with Virginia Uranium, Incorporated – the company that wants to mine the Coles Hill deposi t -have said if the Coles Hill project is approved, it would still be several years before mining would actually begin.
By Beverly Amsler