Uranium Mining

Virginia has maintained a 30-year ban on uranium mining for serious and nondebatable reasons. Not only does the mining process produce a granular radioactive byproduct that poses a long-term containment risk, the immediate dangers to Virginia’s aquifers and surface water are considerable.  The site in Pittsylvania County, proposed by Uranium Mining Inc., would give us not only Virginia’s first uranium mine, but the only active uranium mine east of the Mississippi River. 

These factors are significant.  Virginia’s first uranium mine would be developed at a place that sharply contrasts with sites of active uranium mines out West. Those mines are predominantly situated in dry, sparsely populated regions of the United States and away from major tributaries.  Mining at the proposed Virginia site has the potential to impact water, soil, and air quality for hundreds of thousands of families who live downriver and downwind.

Our environment is a unique and priceless public good.  Its purpose is to sustain everyone and not merely the interests of a few.  Citizens should have a say in its stewardship, especially when the impact transcends regions and generations.  Given what we all know, the decision-making process concerning uranium mining in Virginia should be transparent and conducted in good faith.

In light of a recent joint report by the Center for Public Integrity, Public Radio International, and Global Integrity, we have reason to be concerned.  In their State Integrity Investigation, Virginia received an “F” rating for transparency, along with seven other states.  Among the categories where we scored lowest were Executive Accountability and Public Access to Information.  Our low scores may seem like tough assessments, but these clearly are signs that we must do better – especially when we consider issues as crucial as uranium mining.

The current market price for uranium is hovering above $50 per pound.  This is far below its five-year peak of $136.22 per pound experienced in June 2007; however, mining uranium still presents significant job and economic development opportunities.  A study completed by Chumara Economics and Analytics found that a proposed project to mine uranium in Pittsylvania County has the potential to create more than 1,000 total jobs and generate more than $110 million in tax revenue for the commonwealth.  We can expect the total economic impact over the mine’s lifetime to approach $5 billion.

Just as important are the environmental costs, which are difficult to forecast and impossible to recoup.  It is worth considering that in 1979, a dam that serviced the reservoir for New Mexico’s Church Rock uranium mine collapsed spilling 90 million gallons of radioactive liquid and 1,100 tons of waste from uranium tailings into the Puerco River.  This event impacted ranches and farmland as far as 50 miles into neighboring Arizona.  Though technologies have improved and more comprehensive best practices have been implemented, disasters such as this are as hard to predict as they are to prevent.  An event of similar scale in Pittsylvania County would impact the environment and economy by tenfold.

Citizens deserve to have projects that have significant inherent risk vetted in daylight and in a venue that solicits public input from everyone.  Going forward, it is my hope that the consideration of lifting the ban on uranium mining will be transparent and appreciative of the value of a deliberate, open and comprehensive process for this far-reaching and critical issue.