Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The uranium question: are the benefits worth the cost?

Wednesday, August 18, 2010 8:54 AM EDT

I read with interest Cecil Cardwell's letter concerning Dr. Gary Fountain's remarks at the June 22 hearing on uranium mining in Pittsylvania County.

While "40-plus years of service at Babcock and Wilcox" may make Mr. Cardwell quite knowledgeable on the subject of "the processing of uranium-related materials," I do not think it adds much to his understanding of the world of private education-a world in which Dr. Fountain has spent most of his professional life and understands quite well.

I also heard Dr. Fountain's remarks on June 22 and, after 35-plus years in private education, I can offer views on his remarks from quite a different perspective than that of Mr. Cardwell.

Dr. Fountain addressed the idea of a "perceived" negative relationship between mining and private education.

Mr. Cardwell writes of uranium processing, not really of uranium mining.

A covered processing plant located in an urban environment is perceived as something much different than the establishment of two gaping 800-foot deep holes in the earth set in the middle of farmland and pastureland, six short miles from two major private secondary schools.

Dr. Fountain noted that the mining industry would be quickly identified with the area where the mining would take place.

Seldom in the English language is the idea of "mining" connected with positive images. West Virginia does not boast on roadside billboards, "Visit West Virginia: Home to Lots of Coal Mines." Nor does eastern Kentucky.

Without some research, it is difficult to find where existing uranium mines are even located. they simply do not seem to be the source of local pride.

It may indeed be true that uranium mining can be done "safely" in this area, but that is not what the outside world will perceive.

Instead, Pittsylvania County, rightly or wrongly, will be tied to the entire culture of mining and radioactive waste control.

These images will drive the economy of the region and could, according to Dr. Fountain, have a serious influence on the economics of those industries which have called this area home for over a century (i.e. Chatham Hall and Hargrave Military Academy).

This was the gist of his remarks on June 22 as I understand them.

Mr. Cardwell seems to dismiss Chatham Hall as a minor, pretentious and rather silly participant in the debate on the future of the county.

He depicts its head as a kind of modern day Don Quixote, "tilting at windmills" in a goofy pursuit of a non-existent threat.

I disagree with this assessment.

Chatham Hall and Hargrave Military Academy are two major industries in Chatham. Indeed, apart from county administration, together they form "the" major industry of the town.

They bring students and teachers in numbers equal to over one-half of the population of the town into Chatham every year.

Each school-related individual represents over $30,000 of income within the county. They employ dozens of town and county residents.

Their operating budgets run into the millions of dollars, most of which is spent right here.

They are businesses established since 1894 and 1909, respectively. Their roots go deep into Southside Virginia and their reputations carry their names (and those of the town and county) far into the outside world in a very positive manner.

If these schools were industries in the form of plywood plants or textile mills, our elected and appointed officials would go to no end to protect them, praise them and work hard to secure their continued prosperity.

Yet, I am always baffled to find individuals in the area who seem to dismiss these schools as meaningless or pesky intruders or, that the schools can exist without careful maintenance or attention to precisely the kind of danger Dr. Fountain was addressing in his remarks on June 22.

As CEO of a major county industry, Dr. Fountain is acting quite responsibly in pointing out a potential threat to his business.

Private education is no "exclusive" enclave of the rich and obnoxious. It is a major player in the economic well-being of the communities in which it exists.

Uranium mines and milling operations are no fatuous windmills. Their coming raises real issues in the minds of thinking people.

Dr. Fountain asks a simple question: Are we willing to risk the existence of two long established, well-respected and prosperous industries (Chatham Hall and Hargrave) for the establishment in our midst of another not so well-established industry with a not so glorious reputation, whose existence will be but short-lived (35 years)?

This is a legitimate question, the answer for which must come after long, wise and careful deliberation.

Richard Dixon
Chatham, VA