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 site is about 50 miles from Henderson as the crow flies. Job creation there could impact the unemployed in many adjacent counties, including Vance.

At present, Virginia state law allows the exploration of uranium deposits but not mining. The first significant step is if Virginia creates a regulatory framework and lifts the moratorium that currently exists on uranium mining.

North Carolina, by contrast, has no ban on uranium mining.
Virginia’s legislature isn’t the only hurdle. Approval by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is also required. The federal agency might need at least two years for an environmental impact study.

A report on uranium mining by Virginia’s Uranium Working Group, a project of Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell a year ago, has touched off reactions in both states.

The governing body closest to the proposed mine site in Coles Hill, Va., the Pittsylvania County board of supervisors, couldn’t agree on a resolution.

“There is still strong opposition from some members of the board who will never vote in favor of any resolution on uranium mining, especially if it states, ‘Keep the moratorium on uranium mining,’” said Jessie Barksdale, a supervisor with the board.

The Uranium Working Group’s report describes the process for permitting mining or milling of uranium if the moratorium is lifted; roles of state and federal agencies; policy considerations; the statutory and regulatory framework needed; and additional resources that will be required by state agencies.

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.”

On the other side are a number of groups and individuals who favor lifting the ban on uranium mining. Prominent among these is Walter Coles, owner of the property under which the uranium lies. With a group of investors, he has formed Virginia Uranium, Inc., with the hope of mining the uranium.

Also supporting an end to the moratorium is People for Prosperity, a local group made up of businesses, farmers and residents. They say uranium mining would create jobs.
But Bolling, Virginia’s chief jobs creation officer, questions that conclusion.

“I am concerned that removing the ban on uranium mining could have a chilling effect on the economic progress we are making in this important region of our state,” he said. “The success of our ongoing job creation efforts is too great to take the risk of adding a uranium mining operation to the equation.”

Ken and Deborah Ferruccio, longtime environmental activists in Warren County, have followed the issue as it has been debated. They expressed concern about the instructions Gov. McDonnell gave the working group.

“He starts with the premise that they should determine what is ‘reasonably achievable,’” Deborah Ferruccio said. “The risk is not what they are talking about. They want design.

“They really don’t address how they’re going to deal with the gargantuan amounts of nuclear waste that will be created. And there’s no way they can guarantee there will be money to maintain waste sites over time.”

Ken Ferruccio added, “Once this goes into effect, I can imagine a time when they’ll say, ‘Don’t swim in Kerr Lake. Don’t drink the water. We’ve had a leak, but we’ll get it under control.’ I hope the legislature will have the good sense to reject efforts to lift the ban.”

Bolling also expressed concern about long-term storage of the radioactive by-products and the possibility of leakage and concluded, “The risk of an environmental incident of this nature is too great to take.”

Contact the writer at dirvine@hendersondispatch.com.