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Catastrophe in the Making: Mining for Uranium Could Begin on the East Coast

Despite public outcry, Virginia could permit mining at one of the world's largest uranium deposits.

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Then there is the issue of the tailings that will remain after the milling process and pose a contamination hazard for thousands of years, even with modern technological improvements. The “long-term risks remain poorly defined” the report said, and failings “could lead to significant human health and environmental effects.”

The report noted that there are some serious health risks from silica dust, diesel exhaust and radon decay that have been linked to cancer. Workers are most at risk, but the surrounding public could be exposed to cancer-causing chemicals as dust blows from the site or wastewater leaks. And it is possible for the contaminants to enter the food chain, too.

Ultimately, the study concluded that if Virginia does decide to lift the moratorium it will face "steep hurdles" to ensure that the environment, public health, and workers are safe. 

Focus on Water

Coles Hill sits on the Bannister River, a tributary of the Roanoke River, which travels over 400 miles from the Blue Ridge Mountains through Virginia, dipping into North Carolina, and finally reaching the ocean at the Outer Banks. In 2011, the proposed uranium mine earned the Roanoke a spot on American Rivers’ annual list of the most endangered waterways in the country. "The potential health impacts of exposure to uranium and mining chemicals are well-documented, and include cancer, birth defects, hormone disruption, and damage to vital organs," the organization said. "Developing a uranium industry in Virginia is considered especially risky because of the region’s high rainfall and frequently severe hurricanes and storms." 

While the Roanoke doesn’t flow through Virginia Beach, it is impounded in Lake Gaston, from which the city pumps water  — and that water is mixed with other sources to supply Virginia Beach and neighboring communities like Norfolk and Chesapeake. Virginia Beach found through its computer modeling that a major failure of even just one above-ground waste impoundment would be bad news for their community — even though they’re hundreds of miles downstream.

The water column will eventually clear, said Public Utilities director Thomas Leahy, although Virginia Beach would have to stop pumping water from one of its main sources for up to two years. The toxic sediments that fall out of the water column could affect plants and bottom-dwelling fish for perhaps hundreds of years. If the city had to stop pumping, Leahy says it would be “a bad time for a year or two with severe economic issues” as well as a public relations nightmare.

If the impoundments are put below grade he says, and there is a failure the effects would be more in the immediate environment. “Surface water would be protected at the expense of groundwater.” But Leahy says there is no guarantee that below grade impoundments will be feasible. “The Marline company said the water table was too high for below grade impoundments and so did the engineering study,” Leahy said. “In Virginia, all landfills are above ground because of water contamination.”

As a result of the study, the Virginia Beach City Council opposes lifting the moratorium. The AP reported that, “The Virginia Association of Counties and the Virginia Municipal League have endorsed legislative positions seeking to keep the ban” as well.

“Regardless of what anyone says, if you run a mining operation there will be releases,” Leahy said. “Most of that would be a local issue. Our concern is more of the catastrophic accident.”

But there are many close to Coles Hill who are concerned about the local impacts, as well as the 1.2 million people who get their drinking water from the Roanoke and Bannister rivers.

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