Uranium: ‘Not the time to relax’

Map of likely uranium deposits in Virginia.Courtesy of Piedmont Environmental Council
Map of likely uranium deposits in Virginia.

More than 50 attended a town hall meeting held by the Piedmont Environmental Council (PEC) last Saturday (Jan. 28) in Washington on the possibility – and the possible risks and impact – of uranium mining in Virginia, including in Rappahannock County and surrounding areas.

PEC organized the meeting after Gov. Bob McDonnell’s announcement Jan. 20 that there would be no effort this year to lift Virginia’s longstanding ban on uranium mining – but that state agencies would start drafting regulations for potential uranium mining in the state.

“This is not the time the time to relax,” said Rob Marmet, PEC’s senior energy policy analyst. “Although there is no bill to lift the ban this year, Virginia Uranium Inc. is telling its investors that regulations are being drafted, and legislation will be ready for the 2013 General Assembly session.”

Underground uranium deposits are thought to exist throughout the state, including in Rappahannock, but uranium has never been mined in Virginia because of the severe risks posed by the state’s high rainfall, intense storms, and natural events such as hurricanes and earthquakes. In the United States, uranium has only been mined in arid areas, where the low rainfall makes it more feasible to contain the radioactive and toxic mine wastes. (Even so, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has found that tailings from uranium ore have contaminated groundwater in almost every case.)

At the town hall meeting, PEC representatives presented information on the track record of uranium mining in other places. For example, dozens of wells throughout New Mexico and Arizona were declared off-limits for drinking, due to uranium contamination. In Ontario, more than 30 waste containment dams failed within a 20 year-period, releasing cancer-causing radon into the Serpent River and the Great Lakes. In Florida, which has dealt with uranium as byproduct of phosphate mining, a mining company went bankrupt, leaving taxpayers to foot the bills for its toxic legacy – $144 million up front, and $12 million per year in ongoing costs.

Studies have linked exposure to uranium and uranium mine wastes to lung cancer, bone cancer, leukemia, soft tissue cancers, damage to internal organs (notably the kidneys) and reproductive risks (including fetus development). A study by the National Academy of Sciences that was released in December confirmed that uranium mining in Virginia would pose health and environmental hazards that are beyond the capacity of current technologies and regulatory expertise to contain.

The study stated: “A mine or processing facility could . . . be subject to uncontrolled releases of radioactive materials as a result of human error or an extreme event such as a flood, fire or earthquake.”

It further states: ”It is questionable whether currently-engineered tailings repositories could be expected to prevent erosion and surface and groundwater contamination for as long as 1,000 years. Natural events such as hurricanes, earthquakes, intense rainfall, or drought could lead to the release of contaminants if facilities are not designed and constructed to withstand such events, or if they fail to perform as designed.”

Uranium mining and milling (processing) has been banned in Virginia since 1982. Virginia Uranium Inc., the corporation that is pushing to lift this ban, is currently focused on a large deposit in southwest Virginia. But uranium deposits can be found in many parts of Virginia, and before the ban, leases for uranium mining were filed on thousands of acres of land in Madison, Culpeper, Fauquier, and Orange counties. Recent research by Rappahannock residents Merrill Strange and Leslie Cockburn confirms that there was exploration for potential uranium mining at numerous sites in Rappahannock County.

After the PEC’s presentation at the Theatre at Washington, a lively question and answer session ensued, followed by refreshments at the nearby home of John and Beverly Sullivan.

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