Will Virginia Allow the First Uranium Mine East of the Mississippi?

The future of fusion and fission.
Jan. 10 2013 2:40 PM

The Ugly Battle Over Virginia’s Uranium

Secret tapes, murky finances, and free trips to Paris.

George Washington and Jefferson National Forest near Chatham, Va.
George Washington and Jefferson National Forest near Chatham, Va.

Photograph courtesy USDA.

For all the turmoil it is stirring, the mining company Virginia Uranium operates from a headquarters that is remarkably plain: a beige, corrugated-steel building next to a cattle farm at the edge of the small town of Chatham, Va. You wouldn’t guess the firm is heading a highly controversial effort to build the first uranium mining and milling operation east of the Mississippi River.

The parking lot, holding several cars and pickup trucks, is near the “End of State Maintenance” road sign. Inside, a woman greets me (I’m not expected) and leads me past walls covered with detailed geological maps to the office of Patrick Wales, the youthful-looking project manager. He is scowling at three computers screens on his desk.

“I can’t talk to you today,” Wales says anxiously. “The lieutenant governor has just announced his opposition to the project.”

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Wales, who never did respond to requests for an interview, has good reason to be apprehensive. Virginia Uranium’s plan to develop a 119-million-pound site of underground uranium ore—one of the largest deposits in the United States—is finally coming down to the wire.

The Virginia General Assembly will decide during this winter’s session, which was called to order this week, whether or not to lift a 30-year-old moratorium on uranium mining. The denouement is coming after several years of intense lobbying by proponents and opponents, hundreds of thousands of dollars in studies, and trips paid for by the mining firm to send legislators to Paris. It is pitting neighbor against neighbor, splitting the state Republican Party, and sparking late-night political intrigues in an area that seems better suited for Andy Griffith and Aunt Bea.

If Virginia dumps the mining ban, it will be taking a big step into uncharted territory. The state has no experience regulating uranium mining or milling, although a recent government panel did make up a list of what must be done to regulate the industry. The chore would take several years and involve hiring 30 new professionals to monitor drinking water, groundwater, labor conditions, and air pollution.

The mining project could make money—some claim up to $7 billion, depending on the fickle global prices for uranium. Investors include a number of mysterious Canadians and a local family headed by a retired U.S. Foreign Service officer named Walter Coles. The family owns the heirloom Coles Hill Farm that dates back to the War of 1812. Areas underneath the farm’s rolling pastures, as well as more than 2,000 acres of leased land, could be ripped up to reach the radioactive ore. Economic studies say that 1,000 jobs may be created in a region wracked by the loss of thousands of textile, furniture, and tobacco jobs. The unemployment rate in Danville, the largest nearby city, is 9.3 percent, among the worst in the state.

The risks of pushing on with uranium mining are immense. The National Academy of Sciences warned in a 2011 study that “there are many unknowns” and that “steep hurdles” needed to be surmounted if mining goes forward. Much of the concern lies with Virginia’s dearth of experience regulating ore production, but dangers also arise because of the mining area’s climate, watershed, and nearby cities.

The United States is actually a small player in uranium production, representing only about 4 percent of the world total. Most mining has been done in remote, minimally populated, desert areas in Western states such as Arizona or Utah in the 1940s and ’50s—often with disastrous results.

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