For more than 30 years, Virginia has maintained a statutory ban prohibiting uranium mining. One company, Virginia Uranium, Inc. (VUI), is asking lawmakers to repeal that longstanding ban. VUI’s efforts have focused on a uranium deposit north of Danville, in Pittsylvania County. The deposit is in the watershed of the Roanoke River, which provides drinking water for more than 1.1 million people, including one-third of the water supply for Norfolk, Virginia Beach, and Chesapeake.
Last year, VUI launched a massive lobbying campaign, ranking as the #1 top lobbying spender according to data compiled by the Virginia Public Access Project. VUI spent as much as the #2 and #3 lobbying spenders (Dominion and Altria) combined.
Despite this unprecedented and intensive lobbying effort, a groundswell of opposition to uranium mining during the 2013 General Assembly Session succeeded in keeping the ban. Support for the ban came from environmental nonprofits, public health groups, businesses in Southern Virginia, and dozens of local governments throughout the state. Ban supporters coalesced into two important alliances: the Keep The Ban Coalition (www.keeptheban.org) and CommonHealth Virginia (http://commonhealthva.org/).
VUI, however, remains undeterred. The company has informed state legislators that it intends to revive the issue in the upcoming 2014 legislative session. Below are key questions and answers about the uranium controversy in Virginia.
Is the “science still out” on the potential risks posed by uranium mining?
No. Uranium mining is one of the most carefully studied environmental issues in recent Virginia history, and the moratorium remains on the books precisely because peer-reviewed science has shed so much light on the issue. Most notably, in 2012, the National Academy of Sciences (“NAS”) completed a multi-year, $1.4 million investigation of the scientific, technical, environmental, human health and safety, and regulatory aspects of uranium mining and processing in Virginia.2 NAS’s peer-reviewed study provides clear, objective evidence of the significant potential risks posed by uranium mining, milling, and waste disposal.
That should be the end of the matter. As VUI wrote in March 2011, while the NAS’s research was still in progress: “We should all have full faith and confidence in the Academy to deliver an independent, scientifically based assessment, and we all should fully commit to abiding by its findings.”3
What did the NAS report conclude?
The NAS report validated the core concerns of the public health and environmental communities. The NAS found, for example, that ““Tailings disposal sites represent significant potential sources of contamination for thousands of years, and the long-term risks remain poorly defined. Although significant improvements have been made in recent years … limited data exist to confirm the long-term effectiveness of uranium tailings management facilities that have been designed and constructed according to modern best practices.” (Final Report, p. 178).
Why not task state agencies with writing regulations on uranium mining? Won’t that help determine whether uranium can be mined safely in Virginia?
The NAS concluded that there are scientific and technical limits to our ability to manage the radioactive waste from uranium mining, milling, and waste disposal processes— even if the most stringent regulations are in place. This is why Paul Locke, Chair of the NAS Committee, stated, “Internationally accepted best practices … are available to mitigate some of the risks involved. However, there are still many unknowns. … The report did not say you can mitigate all risks.”
Are there real-world examples of groundwater contamination from uranium mining?
Yes. According to the NAS study, waste from the mining and milling processes can contaminate the local environment by seeping into water sources, which in turn can lead to a risk of cancer from drinking water.4 In the western U.S., uranium mining has resulted in long-term environmental contamination leading to more than $2 billion in remediation costs.5 One uranium mill in Colorado has been leaking for 30 years, despite repeated efforts to address the problem.6 It was declared a Superfund site in the 1980s, but a 2004 report found it continues to release “millions of gallons of leachate [polluted water] into the environment each year;” and clean-up is estimated to cost anywhere from $50 million to $500 million.7
But does uranium mining and waste disposal pose a threat to drinking water in Virginia?
Yes. The Coles Hill site is in a basin that provides drinking water for more than 1.1 million people in Virginia and North Carolina.8 It is one-third of the drinking water supply for Virginia Beach, Norfolk, and Chesapeake. The City of Virginia Beach retained a global engineering firm, the Michael Baker Corporation, to research whether mining at Coles Hill could contaminate water supplies in the event of a natural disaster, such as a hurricane. The Baker report concluded that a catastrophic failure of a waste disposal facility could lead to radioactivity in the river/reservoir system 10-20 times greater than what is allowed by the Safe Water Drinking Act.9
Why is the City of Virginia Beach concerned about the risks?
According to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 78 hurricanes have impacted Virginia between 1910 and 2011. These include Hurricane Fran, which, in 1996, caused flooding at the Coles Hill site itself. This was a major concern highlighted in the NAS report: “In a hydrologically active environment such as Virginia, with relatively frequent tropical and convective storms producing intense rainfall, it is questionable whether currently-engineered tailings repositories could be expected to prevent erosion and surface groundwater contamination” to the maximum levels required by federal regulations, 10 CFR Part 40. (Final Report, p. 189).
But doesn’t Canada’s experience prove that uranium can be mined safely in Virginia?
No. VUI’s public relations firm, Capital Results, has hired a former Canadian regulator, Kevin Scissons, to argue in favor of uranium mining in Virginia based on Canada’s example.10 However, Canadian mines have experienced their own problems.11 In 1989, a leak of contaminated waste water at the Rabbit Lake mine in Saskatchewan resulted in the release of approximately two million liters (528,300 gallons). In August of 1993, a major spill in Ontario resulted in the release of half of a million gallons of waste water from tailings ponds at the Stanleigh mine at Elliot Lake. Most recently, in October 2006, massive flooding overwhelmed the Cigar Lake mine in Saskatchewan as it was being developed, before production could begin.3 According to a trade publication report, “[T]he fact that efforts to contain the flooding to one section were not successful and that Cameco [the mine operator] was then forced to allow the entire mine to flood raised questions for some analysts about whether Cameco could devise plans to prevent future floods…”
Will uranium mining guarantee economic growth for Southern Virginia?
No. A socio-economic analysis commissioned by the Virginia Coal and Energy Commission found that uranium mining could trigger an $11 billion loss statewide under a worst-case scenario—nearly twice as much as the hoped-for positive impact under the study’s best-case scenario.12 This projection accounts for losses in property value, manufacturing and school closings, state remediation spending, public health costs, statewide job loss, and an acute period of distress for the agriculture and tourism sectors.13
Has the local business community near Coles Hill weighed in on the issue?
Yes. The Danville Pittsylvania County Chamber of Commerce, an organization with more than 700 members, opposes lifting the moratorium on uranium mining. The Chamber has voiced concerns about the impact of uranium mining on existing businesses and on the region’s ability to attract, retain, and grow jobs.14 Southside businesses are not alone. A survey commissioned by Governor McDonnell’s Uranium Working Group found that Virginia business leaders statewide favored keeping the uranium mining ban by more than an 11-point margin.15
Why is uranium mining a potential threat to existing businesses in Southern Virginia?
Agriculture in Danville and Pittsylvania County adds more than $180 million in value to the local economy each year and supports more than 3,600 jobs.16 Southside tourism generates more than $340 million a year and directly supports more than 3,700 jobs.17 Both of these industries depend on clean water.
Is this issue limited just to Southern Virginia?
Speaking to foreign investors in February 2011, a VUI executive explained: “Talking to the lead geologist, he’s insistent to this day that Coles Hill is the first of more major discoveries in Virginia ...”18 In the 1970s and 80s, exploratory leases (now expired) were in obtained Pittsylvania, Madison, Culpeper, Orange, and Fauquier counties.
Since 2007, dozens of local governments in Virginia and North Carolina have passed resolutions in support of keeping the ban. In Virginia, these include the cities of Danville, Martinsville, Suffolk, Chesapeake, Portsmouth, Norfolk, Virginia Beach, Charlottesville, Roanoke, Martinsville, Danville; and the counties of Pittsylvania, Floyd, Patrick, Halifax, Charlotte, Mecklenburg, Brunswick, Southampton, Orange, Madison, Nelson, Fauquier and Rappahannock. In addition, more than 20,000 citizens have also affirmed their support for the ban by signing a petition to the General Assembly.19
RecommendationsThe General Assembly should continue to heed the findings of the National Academy of Sciences and maintain the moratorium on uranium mining and milling that has for more than 30 years, protected the lives, livelihoods, and property of Virginians.
Author: Cale Jaffe, Southern Environmental Law Center
1Robert G. Burnley, “All the Credible Sciences Says, ‘Keep the Ban,’” Danville Register & Bee, (June 17, 2012).
2 National Research Council, Uranium Mining in Virginia: Scientific, Technical, Environmental, Human Health and Safety, and Regulatory Aspects of Uranium Mining and Processing in Virginia, at 32 (2012) (“NAS Final Report”); Laurence Hammack, “Don't mine uranium in Virginia, member of study group warns,” The Roanoke Times (July 27, 2012) (noting that the National Academy of Sciences committee “ended its service” on June 1, 2012).
3 Walter Coles, Sr., “No End-Run Around the Study,” Danville Register & Bee (Mar. 28, 2011).
4 Id. at 124.
5 Robert E. Moran, Michael-Mann Associates, LLC, “Site Specific Assessment of the Proposed Uranium Mining and Milling Project at Coles Hill, Pittsylvania County,” prepared for Roanoke River Basin Association (Nov. 17, 2011).
6 Karen Crummy, “Cotter mill’s ties to Colorado regulators may have become toxic,” Denver Post, (Oct. 23, 2011).
8 Ryke Longest, “Va. doesn’t need to mess around with uranium,” Washington Post (Jan. 4, 2013).
9 Michael Baker Corp., for the City of Virginia Beach, A Preliminary Assessment of Potential Impacts of Uranium Mining in Virginia on Drinking Water Sources, Final Report (Revised Feb. 22, 2011).
10 See “Former Canadian regulator discusses uranium mining,” Chatham Star Tribune, (Oct. 10, 2012).
11 See Michael Knapik, “Cigar Lake Flood Propels Spot Price Closer to $70/lb,” Nuclear Fuel (Platts) Vol. 31, No. 23 (Nov. 20, 2006).
12 Chmura Economics & Analytics, The Socioeconomic Impact of Uranium Mining and Milling in the Chatham Labor Shed, Virginia, Prepared for Virginia Coal and Energy Commissions, at 149 (Nov. 29, 2011) (“Chmura Report”).
14 Laurie S. Moran, “Uranium: Local businesses oppose mining,” Richmond-Times-Dispatch (Jan. 13, 2013).
15 ORI, Final Report for the Business Attitude Survey Regarding Uranium Mining in Pittsylvania County, VA, Presented to Virginia Uranium Working Group, at 5 (Jan. 15, 2013).
16 University of Virginia, Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, “Growing Agribusiness: The Contribution And Development Potential Of Agriculture And Forest Industry In The Danville Metropolitan Area,” at 7, 29 (2013).
17 Virginia Tourism Corporation, 2011 Economic Impact of Domestic Travel on Virginia and Localities.
18 Walter Coles, Jr., “Building North America’s Uranium Supply,” Americas’ Resources Investment Congress, London, U.http://vcnva.org/our-work/healthy-rivers/uranium-miningK. (Feb. 1, 2011).
19 See Keep The Ban Website, http://keeptheban.org/?page_id=9.
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