Monday, January 7, 2013

Virginia mining debate escalates / Catastrophe in the Making: Mining for Uranium Could Begin on the East Coast

Virginia mining debate escalates
Potential $10 billion site pitted against area lakes providing drinking water
Dec. 29, 2012 @ 06:04 PM
Border counties are watching their northern neighbors closely. If a ban on uranium mining in the commonwealth is lifted, more eyes closer to Raleigh will soon join in.
The legislature in Virginia is scheduled to reconvene Jan. 9, and the hot-button topic interesting many North Carolinians is a 30-year ban on uranium mining in Virginia. A site 20 miles from the state line, in Pittsylvania County, was discovered in the 1970s but the plunge of prices never led to development.
Prices have recovered, and the area is now believed to be the nation’s largest untapped deposit, the world’s seventh largest, and worth a potential $10 billion. It also could have an effect on water tributaries in the Roanoke River Basin, including Kerr Lake and Lake Gaston.
Kerr Lake provides drinking water for 118,000. It could one day be a water source for the growing areas of Creedmoor, Raleigh and Durham. Virginia Beach, population 443,000, is supplied water from Lake Gaston.
“Kerr Lake is one of our biggest assets, not just for drinking water but for recreation and industrial use,” said Tommy Hester, chairman of the Vance County board of commissioners. “They talk about underground storage of waste from the mine. It’s a situation where one major incident could affect a large area. I worry about the cleanliness of water for Vance County and for the surrounding area.”
Terry Garrison, another Vance commissioner, agreed.
“The negatives far outweigh the positives,” Garrison said. “They need to find another way. With what they’re proposing now, I foresee water contamination, water shortages and other problems. I think it’s too risky.”
The report didn’t take a position on the advisability of allowing uranium to be mined. But a lot of other groups and individuals did.
Virginia Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling announced his opposition to uranium mining Dec. 14.
“Over the past year much has been written about the proposal to lift the ban on uranium mining and milling in Virginia,” Bolling said. “I have listened carefully to this debate, and after a great deal of consideration I have come to the conclusion that the Virginia General Assembly should maintain the ban on uranium mining and milling in Virginia.”
Sixteen organizations have banded together to form the Keep The Ban coalition. Included among the members are Friends of the Earth, the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club, the Dan River Basin Association, the Roanoke River Basin Association, United Methodist Caretakers of God’s Creation and Virginia Interfaith Power and Light.
The organization’s website lists dozens of government entities that favor keeping the ban on uranium mining, including Vance, Granville, Franklin and Warren counties and a number of municipalities in the region.
Vance County Commissioner Dan Brummitt is a member of the Four Rivers Resource Conservation and Development Council, which addresses environmental issues of six North Carolina counties.
“We recently took a position against lifting the ban,” Brummitt said. “There’s potential for problems. Of course, they’ll say safeguards are in place. But things happen.”

AlterNet / By Tara Lohan
Catastrophe in the Making: Mining for Uranium Could Begin on the East Coast
December 6, 2012 |
We know many of our tragedies by name; in recent years we have met Andrew, Katrina, Ike, Irene, and most recently, Sandy. They defied our expectations — the lost lives, ruined homes, ransacked communities. There is little comfort looking forward. We’re told to expect more storms, and worse ones. It’s hard to imagine how bad things could get, but then, not everyone has to imagine. Some people may remember Camille.

Hurricane Camille hit the Mississippi Gulf coast on Aug. 17,1969, thrashing communities with a tidal
storm surge nearly three stories high and winds of up to 200 miles an hour.  When the storm had moved on, many homes were underwater or on fire, and 143 people in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana were dead. But Camille wasn’t done.

As the storm moved north, it grew weaker until August 19, when what was left of Camille collided with another system of wet air by the Blue Ridge Mountains. The result was a storm of immense magnitude that took rural Nelson County, Virginia, completely by surprise. Stefan Bechtel explains in his book Roar of the Heavens, small communities in the mountains of central Virginia were inundated with “one of the heaviest rainfalls ever recorded on earth” — in some areas an estimated 31 inches of rain fell in less than eight hours.

“Humans, animals, trees, boulders, houses, cars, barns, and everything else were swept away in a fast-moving slurry, a kind of deadly earth-lava that buried everything in its path,” Bechtel writes. Birds drowned in the trees, people struggling to stay alive had to cover their mouths from the rain to breathe, homes floated away or were crushed by debris. An estimated 2,000 years of erosion of the mountains took place in one night. As rivers rose, flash-flooding occurred all over Virginia, and in Nelson County alone 153 people died, many of their bodies never recovered.

This storm event was known as “probable maximum precipitation.” Thomas Leahy has recently come to learn a lot about PMP storms, and he’s read all about Camille’s wrath on Nelson County. Leahy is director of Public Utilities for the city of Virginia Beach. His interest was piqued in 2007 when he heard about plans to build a uranium mine and mill just south of Nelson County in Pittsylvania County, Virginia. An intake valve for one of Virginia Beach’s main sources of drinking water sits downstream from Pittsylvania County. What would happen to our water, he wondered, if there was a uranium mine and mill in the path of a PMP storm?

Using computer modeling, Virginia Beach spent $400,000 to find out. After all, we’re living in a world of extreme weather and it turns out these massive rain and flooding events aren’t 1,000-year storms but have been mapped by the USGS over the last 100 years across the U.S. Their findings reveal a cluster of PMP storms along the Appalachian mountain range, including in the mid-Atlantic region where three of the five most intense storms took place. Two in Virginia, the 1969 storm in Nelson County, and a 1995 storm in Madison County -- just north of Nelson – where 30 inches of rain fell in 14 hours. Smethport, Pennsylvania was hit in 1942.

in surrounding communities in the Roanoke River watershed have been doing their homework on uranium mining. Even though VUI has promised jobs, residents have found ample reason to be concerned.

Our country’s history of uranium mining has been something of a horror story.

But it is still a massive industrial process that leaves behind radioactive waste forever. You can’t see uranium in the rock the way you can see a coal seam — to get to the good stuff, the rock needs to be pulled from the earth by underground or open pit mines and then crushed. After the mining comes the milling process, in which chemicals are used to separate the uranium. The uranium is then dried and becomes the valuable commodity known as “yellowcake.”

But the waste or "tailings" of crushed rock, water and chemicals is problematic, still containing 85 percent of its radioactivity, including radium and thorium. Tailings are usually put in lined impoundments that are stored above or below ground (also known as below grade) for, well, all of eternity. In that time, the liners are not supposed to rip.

Again, an issue of more rain than evaporation. There are also other concerns; the Southern Environmental Law Center found that in the last century, Virginia “has been hit by at least 78 category-strength hurricanes ... In 2011, at least 37 tornadoes were recorded in Virginia, including one in Halifax County about 20 miles from the Coles Hill site. And in August 2011, an earthquake of 5.8 rocked Virginia; its epicenter was just 125 miles from Coles Hill.”

Then there is the issue of the tailings that will remain after the milling process and pose a contamination hazard for thousands of years, even with modern technological improvements. The “long-term risks remain poorly defined” the report said, and failings “could lead to significant human health and environmental effects.”

The report noted that there are some serious health risks from silica dust, diesel exhaust and radon decay that have been linked to cancer. Workers are most at risk, but the surrounding public could be exposed to cancer-causing chemicals as dust blows from the site or wastewater leaks. And it is possible for the contaminants to enter the food chain, too
Focus on Water
Coles Hill sits on the Bannister River, a tributary of the Roanoke River, which travels over 400 miles from the Blue Ridge Mountains through Virginia, dipping into North Carolina, and finally reaching the ocean at the Outer Banks. In 2011, the proposed uranium mine earned the Roanoke a spot on American Rivers’ annual list of the most endangered waterways in the country. "The potential health impacts of exposure to uranium and mining chemicals are well-documented, and include cancer, birth defects, hormone disruption, and damage to vital organs," the organization said. "Developing a uranium industry in Virginia is considered especially risky because of the region’s high rainfall and frequently severe hurricanes and storms."

While the Roanoke doesn’t flow through Virginia Beach, it is impounded in Lake Gaston, from which the city pumps water — and that water is mixed with other sources to supply Virginia Beach and neighboring communities like Norfolk and Chesapeake. Virginia Beach found through its computer modeling that a major failure of even just one above-ground waste impoundment would be bad news for their community — even though they’re hundreds of miles downstream.