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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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Virginia Uranium has hoped the “local” aspect of the operation will gain support for the project and the company, which despite being founded by Coles and another area resident is not really a mom-and-pop business, but a Canadian-owned corporation now part of  Anthem Resources Incorporated. “Behind Virginia Uranium Inc. is a complex web of Canadian corporations, including an executive from the former Canadian company that failed in the 1980s to win approval for uranium mining,” O’Connor reported at DC Bureau.

VUI (which did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this story) says that “a full-scale mining and milling operation at Coles Hill will support over 1,000 jobs for the 35-year life span of the mine, generate $5 billion in revenue for Virginia companies, and generate $112 million in state and local taxes.” Virginia Business puts the number at 325 full-time jobs with salaries between $50,000 to $70,000.

The jobs angle has gained the company some support in the region, but not from everyone. Other business leaders have a different vision for jumpstarting the area’s economy, including the Alliance for Progress in Southern Virginia, a “pro-economic development coalition of businesses farmers, community leaders, property owners” that is against lifting the ban.

Virginia Business interviewed Chatham business owner Ben Davenport Jr., a group member who is also past rector of the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors and a past chairman of the Virginia Chamber of Commerce. Davenport believes the uranium mine would threaten area businesses, particularly the boarding schools. 

“I guess we’re being asked to take the risk not knowing the outcome [of uranium mining] while knowing on the other hand the penalty if one or both [schools] were to fail,” he said. “I’m on the board of Hargrave, and we say, ‘If you’ve got to explain that [uranium mining is] not a problem, you’ve already lost.’ All at once we’re no longer this quiet little Southern town … now it’s a town that is a mining town… [We also] have a vibrant agricultural economy that’s actually on the upswing. Do the farmers feel threatened? Yes. If, in fact, somehow their product gets stigmatized, it could be devastating to them.”

The Virginia Farm Bureau has recently come out in support of keeping the moratorium and Olga Kolotushkina says she believes the schools don’t stand a chance if uranium mining and milling is green-lighted. “The main concern is the stigma — for agriculture and for Chatham Hall and Hargrave Academy,” she said. “There is no doubt — no one would risk their children’s health. I have two little kids. I’ve invested so much money, blood, sweat, and time in this house that I wouldn’t be able to sell, but I also wouldn’t want to bring my girls there.”

Kolotushkina said in recent years there has been a growth in organic farming and wineries, and further downstream in North Carolina the region is dependent on tourism from the Roanoke River.

Some wonder if the economy will be sacrificed for an unstable industry. In April 2003 the price of uranium was selling for $10 a pound. By June 2007 the price had skyrocketed to $136 a pound, but two years later it had fallen to less than $42. It has gone up and down since and is now around $45. At what point does it no longer become a profitable enterprise for VUI?

In the larger economic picture, is it ever profitable for the American people? “All such large-scale uranium projects involve trade-offs, usually some short-term jobs, etc. in exchange for long-term impacts (environmental, socioeconomic, etc.), most of which are paid by future generations,” concluded Robert Moran in his site-specific assessment of Coles Hill. “Thus, many of the long-term costs will be subsidized by the public.”

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