CHATHAM, VIRGINIA — One of the largest uranium-ore deposits in the world, valued at about $7 billion, is located in an economically-depressed, rural area of the southern U.S. state of Virginia.
Deep underground at Coles Hill, a spread of mostly pasture and farmland, lies more than 53 million kilos [119 million pounds] of uranium ore, which a company called Virginia Uranium is seeking state approval to mine.
“We are in a part of Virginia that’s dealing with double-digit unemployment," says company spokesman Patrick Wales, who suggests the project would be good for the struggling local economy. "The median household income in our part of Virginia is less than $30,000. And so it’s not only the creation of these thousand jobs that our project would support, but these are good high-paying jobs as well.”
Wales also says the mine would make the United States less reliant on foreign imports of the highly radioactive metal needed to power the country’s 104 nuclear reactors.
However, Deborah Ferruccio and fellow regional activists have so far been able to block the company’s efforts to lift a ban on uranium mining in Virginia.
Arguing that uranium mining around the world has caused large-scale environmental damage, she and her supporters have shown that the practice releases toxic levels of radioactive waste into local water supplies and even spreads poisonous dust into the atmosphere.
“They know that it is impossible to contain the waste," Ferruccio says of the company officials. "They know that they can try to minimize the waste contamination that gets out, but, for instance, all liners leak. They’re going to put this in a lined [zone], what would be similar to a landfill.”
“It is our incumbent responsibility as a company to demonstrate that we will be able to mine and mill and safely store our tailings," says Wales, concurring that Virginia Uranium will take measures to protect the water supply during mining, and plans to store the tailings (radioactive waste) underground, encased in layers of clay and synthetic liners.
In 1978 the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) developed stringent uranium safety regulations to protect human health and the environment. NRC uranium expert Bill Von Till says even if Virginia lifts the ban, the company must also meet the federal commission's high standards.
“In the end if they can’t satisfy our regulatory criteria and allow us to make sure that is it going to be protective of public health and safety, we will not issue a license," he said.
Naomi Hodge-Muse, who lives near the site of the uranium deposit, is not persuaded by either government requirements or the company’s assurances. She says ordinary people are being asked to assume all the risk so an elite few can reap the financial rewards.
“We’re going to sacrifice poor whites and poor blacks for the prosperity of, well, the nuclear industry, really,” she says.
For now, efforts to lift the uranium mining ban have stalled in the Virginia General Assembly, but both sides say the issue is still very much alive and they will continue to lobby lawmakers and build public support for future legislative battles.