Virginia is the home of many historic Revolutionary and Civil War battlefields. But today, conflicts are being fought in a different forum. The question of whether to lift Virginia’s moratorium on uranium mining is shaping up to be one of the biggest battles in the General Assembly next year.
Virginia Uranium, Inc. wants to mine a 119-pound uranium ore deposit called Coles Hill. It is in Pittsylvania County in south central Virginia, often referred to as Southside. The company, flush with Canadian investments, has hired 15 lobbyists to push their cause in Richmond. It has also contributed cash to the campaigns of more than 70 legislators and taken lawmakers on all-expense-paid trips to see mining areas in France and Canada.
Environmental groups, who have seven lobbyists, are also gearing up for the fight and do not plan to be outgunned. Some are predicting the vote will be close. At the center of the debate is the question of whether modern technology and stricter regulations can avoid the catastrophes of uranium mining’s past.
Virginia Uranium would operate a mine and milling plant on the Coles Hill site. After uranium is mined, the ore is taken to a mill where the stone is crushed to free up the uranium oxide or “yellow cake.” The waste materials, radioactive sand-like “tailings,” are mixed with water and chemicals, creating toxic slurry.
Tailings remain radioactive for thousands of years and have poisoned live stock, contaminated waterways and destroyed farms and pastures. Chemicals in the tailings have been linked to cancer. Virginia Uranium says it plans to place some of the tailings in underground holding compartments and some back in the mine.
Opponents say they fear the tailings will leach into groundwater or run off into surface rivers and streams. Virginia’s hurricanes and heavy storms increase the risk of contamination, they say.
Company project director Patrick Wales said during a question and answer session at a Richmond mining forum this month that the waste holding cells would be state-of-the-art, lined with rock, clay and tough synthetic strong enough to prevent leaching. Wales offered the assurance that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission would be involved and would monitor tailings management “in perpetuity.”
Olga Kolutoshkina, a legislative adviser to the Roanoke River Basin Association, says she is worried rather than reassured by Wales’ comments.
“I’m concerned about the cost to the taxpayers and communities of monitoring and containing these wastes essentially forever,” Kolutoshkina says. “We’re talking about thousands of years. We have a short and dirty history with uranium and it’s filled with disasters. It spans 40 or 50 years and there’s nothing we can be proud of.”
Wales also said that modern engineering permits the company to build mining and milling facilities to precise specifications. The project will be built to withstand more than a 5.8 earthquake – which shook Virginia last summer — and more than the state’s biggest storm on record.
“If it’s 27 inches (the project will withstand) 28 inches,” Wales said. “The very idea that these aren’t being included in our plans is a misnomer.”
In August 1969, Hurricane Camille dumped more than 28 inches of rain on central Virginia in eight hours. It left 150 people dead, uprooted whole stands of trees and swept away more than 100 bridges. It changed forever the way residents thought of hurricanes, according to one news account.
“I think it’s commendable that they acknowledge that the standards should be based on worst-case scenarios,” says Chris Miller, executive director of the Piedmont Environmental Council, adding that the company’s position is a switch from the past. But Miller says he is not convinced any design can withstand the challenges in Virginia.
“In theory, I’m sure there’s an engineering solution. What we worry about is that engineered facilities for solid waste facilities and toxic waste facilities have failed with far less environmental and geologic stresses than found in Virginia. So you’re putting a lot of faith in an engineering design that may not be warranted.”
“Talk is cheap,” says Kolutoshkina. “Where are the detailed plans of the system they’re going to build? We want to see technical documents. The only documents this company has produced are press releases. The company will always do what is minimally required and the most profitable.”
The Coles Hill site borders the Bannister River and is drained by the Whitehorn and Mill Creeks, which feed into the Roanoke River. The Roanoke supplies drinking water to 1.2 million people in Virginia and North Carolina.
American Rivers, an environmental group headquartered in Washington, named the Roanoke the third most endangered river in America last spring because of the proposed uranium mine. The group noted that the Roanoke sustains $300 million in agriculture annually and attracts thousands of tourists a year for fishing, boating, bird-watching and other outdoor activities.
Virginia Beach is one of three eastern Virginia cities that pump their drinking water via pipeline from Lake Gaston, downstream of the Coles Hill deposit. An engineering study done for the city in February concludes that toxic radioactive waste could contaminate Lake Gaston in a catastrophic rain storm. The study says that the Kerr Reservoir upstream from the lake would trap about 90 percent of the toxic waste but that the rest would flow into Lake Gaston. Flushing out the radioactive contaminants would take from two months to two years depending on the weather, the study says.
Michael Baker Corp., author of the study, looked at powerful hurricanes that struck in Nelson County in 1969 and Madison County in 1995, causing more than 25 inches of rainfall, to assess the potential damage of a catastrophic storm near the uranium mines. Pittsylvania County has never had such large rainfalls.
Virginia Uranium officials reacted far differently to the threat of heavy rain than Wales did in Richmond, when he promised reporters the company would design its facilities to withstand huge rainfalls.
Wales dismissed the Virginia Beach report as an “expensive exercise in fantasy,” saying many of the reports’ assumptions were wrong. At a hearing before the Virginia Beach City Council Aug. 24, Alan Kuhn, a Virginia Uranium consultant said the chances of a massive flood like that in the study was one in 10 million, which he said amounted to “zero.”
Some of the council members, who felt a rare 5.8 earthquake shake through the state a few hours earlier and were awaiting a hurricane that weekend, were not won over by the assurances, according to a report in The Virginian-Pilot.
“The gulf oil spill and the earthquake and tsunami in Japan have shown you can’t always predict it based on history,” Councilwoman Rosemary Wilson said.
Dr. Thomas Burbey, a geology professor with Virginia Polytechnic and State University in Blacksburg, Va., conducted a study of a small portion of the land atop the deposits. He says he found very little groundwater because there are very few fractures in the rocks. Less water at the site would reduce the risk of mining, he says.
“I think the water flows would be easily manageable,” Burbey says. “It would probably reduce the risks of groundwater contamination.”
But the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League said in a report that the Coles Hill site is surrounded by flood zones, citing a map from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The map shows several creeks next to the site, which are marked as flood zones. Kuhn said in a letter to a local paper that the environmental group misread the map.
Pittsylvania County has been hit by storms, hurricanes, tornadoes and an earthquake, according to weather records. It has also been subject to intense flooding. The Federal Emergency Management Agency designated Pittsylvania County a disaster area when Hurricane Fran hit in September 1996, according to agency records.
The area around the Coles Hill site also has a high water table – groundwater used for drinking is only 36 feet below the surface. Environmentalists say that makes it easier for radioactive waste to leech into the water supply.
A preliminary economic report for the company recommends that radioactive slurry be blended with cement to stiffen it. The 2010 report by Lyntek, Inc., a mining engineering firm in Lakewood, Colo. recommends that 10 tons of the waste be buried back in the mine. The other 19 tons of radioactive waste would be stored in eight lined containment cells five feet under the ground and covered with top soil and vegetation. Each holding compartment would encompass as much as 40 acres, according to the Lyntek Study.
If Virginia Uranium mines the full 119 pounds of uranium ore, as it says it will, rather than the 63 pounds projected in the Lyntek report, the company would have many more tons of toxic waste to handle. Walt Coles Sr. says he believes the company can reduce the waste, noting that the Lyntek report is a preliminary study.
“We’re not going to know that until the final mill design takes place,” Coles says. “There’s all sorts of new technology being studied.”
Environmentalists say Virginia Uranium will have trouble placing the storage cells below ground because the high water table leaves very little earth above the groundwater. And even if they could, they say, it would not be a solution.
“They’re leaving behind tons and tons of waste that is toxic and radioactive,” Nathan Lott, executive director of Virginia Conservation Network, says. “We have no confidence that Virginia or anyone else has the ability to keep this contamination contained for thousands of years. We’re worried about a toxic legacy that will put peoples’ lives and livelihoods at risk.”
“That’s absolutely absurd and a lot of people that are anti-mining make that statement, but the fact is mining has taken place all over the world in wet climates just like in Southside,” Coles says. “In fact, they argue that it’s never been mined east of the Mississippi. In fact, mining for uranium has taken place in Louisiana and Florida. You know that’s a wet two states subject to hurricanes. In fact, Katrina went right over the mine sights.”
Neither Florida nor Louisiana ever had uranium mining, according to the Florida Industrial and Phosphate Research Institute. In Florida, corporations mine and mill phosphate, a key ingredient in fertilizer and pesticide, and in Louisiana, companies mill phosphate. Companies in both states extracted uranium from phosphate until the mid-1990s. Hurricane Gloria struck both states but did not pass over the mining areas or milling plants in either state, according to environmentalists there. And wet climates in both Louisiana and Florida have exacerbated the environmental damage done by the phosphate industry, interviews, state records and news accounts indicate.
Neither state has an environmental record that Virginia would likely want to emulate. Phosphate mining and milling have caused huge environmental problems in Florida and Louisiana, according to records at the Environmental Protection Agency, press accounts and interviews with state officials and environmentalists.
New Orleans, one of several cities that get their drinking water from the river, led the fight against the proposal. Thousands of angry protestors said the gypsum would poison their water and increase the risk of cancer, already high in the area. State environmental officials turned the company down, citing the risk of tainted drinking water and potential harm to fish and wildlife.
Fertilizer plants, still looking for ways to get rid of their waste, were allowed to use their gypsum stacks to fill in wetlands being primed for a roadway. “Everything died,” Wilma Subra, a chemist who consults for Louisiana Environmental Action Network, says.
In the late 1980s, Gov. Buddy Roemer required the companies to cover the gypsum stacks with soil and grass because when rainwater came, the gypsum leached into groundwater and flowed into wetlands and waterways, Subra also says.
With its toxic stew of oil and gas, chemical plants and gypsum stacks, Louisiana’s environment has ranked high for poison, EPA records show. In 1988, the federal agency started requiring companies to report the toxic chemicals they emit into the air, water and land in each state. Louisiana came in first place with 985 million pounds of pollution, according to EPA records. It remained among the top three for 10 years. It dropped to ninth place in 1998 after the phosphate industry successfully sued to have phosphoric acid, a byproduct of phosphate, removed from the list of toxic chemicals that had to be reported.
In central Florida, phosphate mining has long been raising health and environmental alarms. A 1985 report in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that acute leukemia was twice the normal rate in 27 counties with or near phosphate mining and milling. The report said further study was needed.
Charlotte, Lee and Sarasota counties spent $12 million in court battles between 2001 and 2007 to try to stop expansions of the mining industry that would endanger the health of land and water, Charlotte County Assistant Attorney Martha Burton says. They were fighting their own state Department of Environmental Protection, which, county officials claim, allowed mining companies to destroy wetlands and streams.
Department of Environmental Protection officials, who argued for the mining companies in court, said they were trying to be fair and make decisions based on science. Among the permits the counties were fighting was a proposed 2,067-acre mine near the town of Ona, owned by the country’s largest phosphate producer, Mosaic Co., based in Plymouth, Minn.
The counties presented written expert testimony that phosphate mining ruined soil, reduced fish species, harmed wildlife and destroyed the quality of untold streams and waterways. A certified senior ecologist estimated that cleaning up after the Ona mine and restoring wetlands, woodlands and habitat would cost $643 million for which Mosaic was not prepared.
The counties are still fighting the proposed Ona mine. Last April, they asked the federal Army Corp of Engineers to step in and do an environmental impact study of Central Florida.
In September 2004, Hurricane Frances whipped up waves in a waste water holding pond that stood atop a 180-foot-high gypsum stack. The dike broke, spilling 65 million pounds into a creek and bay that drain into the Tampa Bay. Officials said many crabs, shrimp and fish were destroyed. Phosphate waste is highly acidic and, as one state environmental official described it to a local newspaper, similar to Draino.
In 1995, a 15-story-deep sinkhole opened up in an 80-million-ton gypsum stack, dumping at least 4 million cubic feet of toxic waste into the Floridan aquifer. It supplies 90 percent of the state’s drinking water.
U.S. News and World Report, which wrote about Florida’s phosphate problems in the mid-1990s, noted the industry’s political clout. Between 1971 and 1995, mining firms paid $1 billion in state severance tax on the phosphate they retrieved and provided 8,000 jobs. They also contributed campaign money to state and local officials. Even environmental groups were not particularly vocal, having received $109,000 in 1994.
“I would say to the people of Virginia: Be very afraid. I can’t imagine how uranium mining would turn out well. All the waterways around here are polluted,” Linda Young, director of the Clean Water Network of Florida, says of central Florida.
“Don’t let them get a foothold. They take over the politics. They take over the land. They take over the courts. They take over the environment. They’re like a cancer and can’t be stopped.”
Coming Next Week: Part Three – Uranium Mining – The Virginia Battleground