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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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Olga Kolotushkina's family owns a home 12 miles from the Coles Hill site. She said, “There is a small risk but huge consequence if there is a catastrophic event of rain and flooding — everything will be washed down. But another risk is the long-term chronic degradation of water. What is going to be the cumulative impact?”

A site-specific study commissioned last year by the Roanoke River Basin Association found that 250 private wells could be at risk in just a two-mile radius from the Coles Hills site. Water contamination could result from leaking mill tailings, but could also come from water that would need to be drained from the mine and stored on-site before being treated and released. “Such a project would cause long-term, chronic degradation of water quality and increase water competition in the region,” the report found.

"Virginia Uranium says it will mine safely, just as BP said it would drill safely," attorney Cale Jaffe told the Roanoke Times. "The lesson here is that things do not always go according to plan, and we should not be playing high-stakes roulette with a waterway.”

But sometimes it isn't the catastrophic accident that is most damaging, but slow leaks from cracks in impoundments, said Jaffe.  Writing for the Richmond Times Dispatch, Jaffe elaborated:

In Colorado, a Cotter Corp. mill has been leaking for years, despite repeated efforts to address the problem. The mill was declared a Superfund site in the 1980s, but a 2004 report found it continued to release "millions of gallons of leachate into the environment each year." Cleanup was estimated to cost up to $500 million.

Accidents continue to this day. As recently as 2006, flooding overwhelmed a uranium mine site in Saskatchewan, Canada. According to a nuclear-industry publication, that flood raised "questions for some analysts about whether [the mining company] could devise plans to prevent future floods."

Closer to home, uranium was extracted in Florida as a byproduct of phosphate mining. In 1997, a spill at one Florida phosphate mine released 50 million gallons of wastewater, poisoning 35 miles of the Alafia River and killing up to 3 million fish. The cleanup of a second spill from the same company cost state taxpayers $144 million.

Robert G. Burnely, a former director of Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality, says the state doesn’t have the experience or the know-how to effectively regulate uranium mining. Not only that, it simply doesn't have the money. "Virginia consistently spends less than 1 percent of its total annual budget on environmental protection," he wrote in an op-ed for the Danville Register & Bee. "A fair conclusion to be drawn from this statistic is that the environment has not been a high priority for the legislature ...The forced triage of regulatory duties means that agencies must often rely on industry self-reporting — a prospect that should be unthinkable for an industry as risky as uranium mining and waste disposal."

Political Climate

Whether Virginia embraces uranium mining will likely be decided in the next year by the General Assembly. Most people thought it would come to a vote during the beginning of 2012; the National Academy of Sciences study was completed in December 2011 and it was thought to hold all the information legislators would need to make educated decisions about whether to vote yes or no on lifting the moratorium. But instead, Virginia’s governor Bob McDonnell asked the legislature to wait until he could form a task force to examine the issue. Proponents of keeping the ban cried foul, believing that the governor’s handpicked Uranium Working Group and the private consulting firm he hired were tasked with drafting uranium-mining regulations for the General Assembly and not fact-finding about the potential hazards — which were already well documented.

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