As late as 2007, the Environmental Protection Agency was still dealing with the 1979 breach of a dam on the Puerco River near Gallup, N.M. that held back radioactive waste from a uranium mine closed years before. The breach, of a dam operated by United Nuclear Corporation near Navajo land, released more radioactive material than did the accident at Three Mile Island. The EPA ordered acres of tainted land and vegetation dug up.
The Virginia tract poses much different problems. Chatham has a rainy climate, so any radioactive leaks would travel farther and faster. It is also within 130 miles of three major urban areas—Richmond, Raleigh-Durham, and Hampton Roads, a thirsty metropolis surrounded by salt water that gets up to 40 percent of its drinking water from Lake Gaston, a mere 20 miles downstream of Coles Hill Farm.
Adding to concerns, Virginia Uranium plans on storing radioactive tailings from its milling operations at the farm. The underground storage areas would not be far from groundwater, and the creeks and streams in the area flow into a lake complex on the Virginia-North Carolina border that is used for drinking water. Some local residents fear what uranium-tainted dust or smoke might do to their homes. Others have placed green signs on their land stating: “I dig uranium. It’s about jobs.”
The uranium in the ground near Chatham was discovered in the 1950s, when government prospectors scoured the countryside for nuclear weapons material. Local residents weren’t surprised. One was Claudia Emerson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and former state poet laureate who grew up in Chatham. “On our street,” she says, “every other house seemed to have a case of cancer in it. It could have been that people smoked a lot more, but there seems to have been something else.”
Uranium mining remained dormant locally until the late 1970s, when a Canadian firm named Marline Uranium Corp. began surveying for uranium. In 1982, it announced it had found 30 million pounds of uranium oxide near the Coles Hill site as well as some farther north in the horse-country counties of Fauquier, Madison, Orange, and Madison. It began leasing thousands of acres, joined with its partner Union Carbide, the chemical giant.
The plan touched off a flurry of protests, but it was doomed anyway. The partial meltdown of the Three Mile Island nuclear power station in Pennsylvania in 1979 caused uranium prices to tank. Union Carbide bolted, and Marline eventually shut down.
Uranium came up again in 2007 with some curious similarities to the efforts 30 years earlier. For one, Norman W. Reynolds, who had headed Marline, was the new president and chief executive of Virginia Uranium. He is working with the Coles family, which wanted to develop the reserves on its farm after Walter Coles, a two-tour veteran of the Vietnam War, retired a decade ago from U.S. diplomatic service in Egypt, Russia, and Jordan.
The investors behind the Virginia effort aren’t easy to track down. Documents and a company website describing the Virginia Uranium venture show links to the Canadian mining industry based in Vancouver. (Canada is the world’s second-largest uranium producer after Kazakhstan.) Virginia Uranium is shown as subordinate to an entity called Virginia Energy Resources that appears to also control a British Columbia firm called Otish. The name apparently refers to a uranium mining region in Quebec, and a search turned up a firm named Otish Energy. When I called the number listed, a recording of an operator from “Tangent Management” sent the call to voice mail.
One thing that isn’t murky, however, is how much influence Virginia Uranium has been trying to buy. It stirred up a scandal in 2011 when it took a dozen legislators on an expenses-paid trip to France to tour abandoned uranium mine sites, with a side trip to Paris.
In the past year, according to the Virginia Public Access Project, the company has spread $160,000 around to state political campaigns, about 70 percent of it going to Republicans. The firm has contributed $12,500 to the Republican Party and $10,000 to a political action committee backing Gov. Robert F. McDonnell.