The Virginia Coalition is a diverse group of current Southside Virginia job creators who are concerned about the health of our employees and workforce, as well as our future ability to recruit new companies and employees into the region given the health implications of uranium mining. We are CEO's, business owners, entrepreneurs, economic developers and current and former legislators who have a simple request: READ The Reports before voting on a matter with such far reaching ramifications.
Orange County Review
Published: January 18, 2012 Updated: January 18, 2012 - 3:43 PM
The fear of the unknown is often seen as a negative thing, an emotional impediment to stretching beyond one's knowledge, the line where the light ends and the dark begins. When the Virginia General Assembly passed a statewide moratorium on uranium mining in 1982, it was largely for this fear. It wasn't that uranium isn't valuable, it is, or that it can't be mined safely, it can. The state lawmakers were, at the time, unsure what effects uranium mining would have on the Virginia landscape, or how it would react to the very wet Virginia climate. Now, following the recent completion of an independent study on uranium mining in the state and the beginning of another General Assembly session, lawmakers are expected to revisit the issue, but conservationists and mining opponents believe the same questions and dangers concerning the radioactive ore still linger 30 years later.
When Somerset farmer Bill Speiden was approached by Marline Uranium Corporation in 1979 about the prospect of leasing his land, he was initially thrilled. The lease promised a five-figure signing bonus and royalties once viable uranium ore was mined from his property.
"It sounded mighty good to me," said Speiden. "We saw it as sort of a get rich quick scheme."
Wanting to research further what uranium mining might mean for his property, Speiden and his wife used a vacation out west to check out the mines of Colorado and Utah, where much of the uranium is mined in the United States. He said he was not impressed by what he found, particularly leaking and shallow "tailings" used to hold the waste from the mining process.
"When we went out to Colorado and Utah we thought, 'let's hope we can find out a lot of positive stuff, so we can get wealthy from the royalties,'" said Speiden. "But the more we studied it, the more we realized this could be an environmental disaster."
The trip had convinced him not to lease the land, which was likely a setback for Marline, who had determined Speiden's property possessed the greatest radioactivity in the Northern Virginia area. The amount of radioactivity, though, cannot alone determine the quality of minable uranium ore, which must be assessed by drilling into the ground, said Speiden.
In his research, Speiden compared the arid climates of the western states to the wet climate of Virginia. He said that Colorado and Utah experience a positive evaporation rate annually, whereas Virginia records more precipitation than evaporation.
"I certainly hoped technology had been developed to mitigate any contamination, but there isn't technology that can control weather and climate," said Speiden. "It's a problem of precipitation. In our climate the tailings ponds will overflow."
In the late 1970s and early 1980s when Marline began leasing Virginia land, Central Virginia was a focal point, with over 10,000 acres leased, at least 2,000 of which were in Orange County, according to a study released Dec. 19, 2011 on uranium mining in Virginia conducted by the National Academy of Sciences. In addition to Orange, Marline also leased land in Culpeper, Madison, Fauquier and Pittsylvania counties. In Orange specifically, the study doubts the existence of viable uranium, citing the nature and tendency of the county's underground rock.
"There appears little likelihood that economic uranium deposits associated with these sandstones will be discovered in the foreseeable future," stated the National Academy of Sciences study.
According to the study, Orange isn't alone in its disappointing uranium deposits. The National Academy of Sciences singled out Pittsylvania County's Coles Hill as the only viable deposit. The General Assembly commissioned the study to revisit the safety and viability of lifting the state's 30-year moratorium on uranium mining. In the study, though, the National Academy of Sciences was prohibited from stating an opinion or conclusion on whether or not Virginia should lift its ban.
In anticipation of the study and the possible revisiting of the matter by the General Assembly, localities and organizations also reexamined their own stance on uranium mining. In Orange County, the board of supervisors, the Orange Town Council, the local Farm Bureau chapter and the Piedmont Environmental Council have all passed resolutions or expressed their support of upholding the moratorium.
Dan Holmes, PEC's field agent for Orange County, said the group's support of the ban comes from current doubt surrounding the long-term effects of uranium mining.
"Here, it just isn't known how uranium mining will react to our climate," said Holmes. "Here we get twice the amount of precipitation than evaporation and we have the possibility of significant weather events. The research just hasn't been done in these types of conditions. Once you disturb the rock, the radioactive material remains for up to 1,000 years. It's a risk that's out there. I'm not sure what would happen, but the likelihood is pretty great that over the course of those thousand years something could happen."
Speiden, on behalf of the local Farm Bureau chapter, has made the rounds of the various governmental bodies, sharing the story of his leasing experience and what impact lifting the ban could have on the local agricultural economy.
"When you place a coffee bean in hot water it's just a coffee bean in hot water," said Speiden, on the current state of uranium in the ground. "But if you grind that bean up and mix it with the water you've got coffee."
Speiden believes that even the perception of uranium mining near farmland could hurt the industry in the county.
"It's a problem of perception," he said. "If public perceives that wind blown or water driven from a radioactive site showed up in milk, in even a trace amount, just that association could kill the meat and milk market."
The Orange Town Council voted to support upholding moratorium at their Nov. 21, 2011 meeting, but there was one dissenting voice. Councilmember Kent Higginbotham voted against the resolution of support, because he said he doesn't want to shut the door on uranium as an industry and energy solution.
"I felt the vote [in support of the moratorium] was based more on emotion than on scientific research," said Higginbotham. "We're already using nuclear energy and we need to have an energy policy that includes uranium. That's not to extrapolate to the other extreme that we'd be ready to mine tomorrow, though. Obviously it takes time and research, but you have to study it as a first step."
At presstime, neither the house nor senate of the General Assembly had proposed a bill reexamining the moratorium on uranium mining. Friday, Jan. 20 is the filing deadline for this session.
Authors: Read the Reports