Catastrophe in the Making: Mining for Uranium Could Begin on the East Coast
Roadside signs in Chatham, Virginia.
Photo Credit: Tara Lohan
This article was published in partnership with GlobalPossibilities.org.
We know many of our tragedies by name; in recent years we have met Andrew, Katrina, Ike, Irene, and most recently, Sandy. They defied our expectations — the lost lives, ruined homes, ransacked communities. There is little comfort looking forward. We’re told to expect more storms, and worse ones. It’s hard to imagine how bad things could get, but then, not everyone has to imagine. Some people may remember Camille.
Hurricane Camille hit the Mississippi Gulf coast on Aug. 17,1969, thrashing communities with a tidal storm surge nearly three stories high and winds of up to 200 miles an hour. Or so experts think — it’s hard to say, since the storm destroyed all of the wind recording instruments in the region. When the storm had moved on, many homes were underwater or on fire, and 143 people in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana were dead. But Camille wasn’t done.
As the storm moved north, it grew weaker until August 19, when what was left of Camille collided with another system of wet air by the Blue Ridge Mountains. The result was a storm of immense magnitude that took rural Nelson County, Virginia, completely by surprise. Stefan Bechtel explains in his book Roar of the Heavens, small communities in the mountains of central Virginia were inundated with “one of the heaviest rainfalls ever recorded on earth” — in some areas an estimated 31 inches of rain fell in less than eight hours.
“Humans, animals, trees, boulders, houses, cars, barns, and everything else were swept away in a fast-moving slurry, a kind of deadly earth-lava that buried everything in its path,” Bechtel writes. Birds drowned in the trees, people struggling to stay alive had to cover their mouths from the rain to breathe, homes floated away or were crushed by debris. An estimated 2,000 years of erosion of the mountains took place in one night. As rivers rose, flash-flooding occurred all over Virginia, and in Nelson County alone 153 people died, many of their bodies never recovered.
This storm event was known as “probable maximum precipitation.” Thomas Leahy has recently come to learn a lot about PMP storms, and he’s read all about Camille’s wrath on Nelson County. Leahy is director of Public Utilities for the city of Virginia Beach. His interest was piqued in 2007 when he heard about plans to build a uranium mine and mill just south of Nelson County in Pittsylvania County, Virginia. An intake valve for one of Virginia Beach’s main sources of drinking water sits downstream from Pittsylvania County. What would happen to our water, he wondered, if there was a uranium mine and mill in the path of a PMP storm?
Using computer modeling, Virginia Beach spent $400,000 to find out. After all, we’re living in a world of extreme weather and it turns out these massive rain and flooding events aren’t 1,000-year storms but have been mapped by the USGS over the last 100 years across the U.S. Their findings reveal a cluster of PMP storms along the Appalachian mountain range, including in the mid-Atlantic region where three of the five most intense storms took place. Two in Virginia, the 1969 storm in Nelson County, and a 1995 storm in Madison County -- just north of Nelson – where 30 inches of rain fell in 14 hours. Smethport, Pennsylvania was hit in 1942.
It’s not just weather that’s gotten extreme. So has extraction for fossil fuels. The battle over hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, for shale gas has gripped the East Coast. Due to the state's geology, fracking has had minimal impacts in Virginia, but those in nearby West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio can’t say the same. New York and North Carolina are both mulling decisions on whether to allow fracking. Appalachian states like West Virginia have also long endured coal mining, but in recent decades have faced increasing threats from an even more extreme form of mining -— mountaintop removal mining, in which the tops of mountains are blown to bits by explosives and the “waste” rock dumped into mountain streams and valleys.
As extractive industries grow in the East, Virginians have realized their state may be the bullseye of yet another energy industry — nuclear power. Large deposits of uranium were discovered in the state in 1979. Throughout the 1970s, employees of the Canadian company Marline Uranium drove all over Virginia with Geiger counters, hoping to hit a uranium jackpot. They struck nuclear gold by Coles Hill, just outside the town of Chatham, Virginia — an area of the state known as Southside, less than 25 miles from the North Carolina border.
But just as they made their big discovery, nuclear energy was thrust into national headlines as a partial meltdown occurred at Three Mile Island. Growing public concern about nuclear energy, plummeting prices for uranium and a moratorium on uranium mining in Virginia, enacted by the state’s General Assembly in 1982, ultimately sent Marline packing.
What Marline walked away from was indeed mammoth — the Coles Hill deposit is estimated at 119 million pounds of uranium worth about $10 billion. It may be the largest find in the U.S. and one of the 10 biggest globally. But uranium mining is all about economics and in 2005 the price of uranium rose high enough that there was renewed interest in Coles Hill; this time from the owner of the land himself, Walter Coles, whose family owns a 750-acre farm where the uranium was found. In 2007 Coles announced the formation of Virginia Uranium Inc. (VUI) and set off to persuade the Virginia Assembly to lift the uranium moratorium so his company could begin mining.
Chatham, Virginia is a rural town struggling to thrive in the post-tobacco and post-textile heyday. The downtown is a modest collection of a few intersecting roads, brick and stone storefronts, a library, and a courthouse. The government seat for Pittsylvania County, the economy is kept afloat by two boarding schools, the all-girls Chatham Hall and the all-boys Hargrave Military Academy. Agriculture continues to dominate in the adjacent bucolic countryside.
The town is not down and out, but it is in the early stages of economic re-invention. As such, it's the kind of place where someone offering jobs is likely to be pretty popular. But Chatham residents are no fools, either. The folks who live there and in surrounding communities in the Roanoke River watershed have been doing their homework on uranium mining. Even though VUI has promised jobs, residents have found ample reason to be concerned.
Our country’s history of uranium mining has been something of a horror story. The first boom in uranium mining came in the '50s in response to our growing nuclear weapons arsenal. A second boom happened in the '70s when many nuclear power plants came online. These booms were followed by busts as uranium prices dropped; when the market bottomed out, mining companies took off, creating an epidemic of abandoned mines. Poor or non-existent regulations, including allowing radioactive waste to be dumped into unlined pits, has left a legacy of toxic pollution and poisoned communities in the West, many on tribal and federal lands. (There are 520 abandoned uranium mines on Navajo land alone.) American taxpayers have been stuck with cleanup bills in the billions of dollars.
Today, uranium mining proponents say regulations are better and new technology makes the work safer. But it is still a massive industrial process that leaves behind radioactive waste forever. You can’t see uranium in the rock the way you can see a coal seam — to get to the good stuff, the rock needs to be pulled from the earth by underground or open pit mines and then crushed. After the mining comes the milling process, in which chemicals are used to separate the uranium. The uranium is then dried and becomes the valuable commodity known as “yellowcake.”
But the waste or "tailings" of crushed rock, water and chemicals is problematic, still containing 85 percent of its radioactivity, including radium and thorium. Tailings are usually put in lined impoundments that are stored above or below ground (also known as below grade) for, well, all of eternity. In that time, the liners are not supposed to rip.
Rose Ellen O’Connor reported for DC Bureau that Virginia Uranium plans to store some of the waste underground and put the rest back in the mine. “Virginia Uranium spokesman Patrick Wales has said the holding compartments will be state-of-the-art, lined with rock, clay and tough synthetic strong enough to prevent leaching,” O’Connor wrote.
Cale Jaffe, an attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, isn't convinced that the waste can be stored below grade because of the area’s high water table. Another concern is that the tailings impoundments aren’t capped until they are filled (they can be up to 40 acres in size), a process that could take months or even years, so if heavy rains or storms occur beforehand, there is opportunity for a catastrophic spill.
Before a tailings impoundment can be capped, all the water needs to be drained from it and it needs to be completely dry, so there is no chance that water could eventually leak out of the impoundment. “It seems to me it would be impossible to dry out a tailings impoundment in Virginia where you have more precipitation than evaporation,” said Sarah Fields, program director of the Utah-based organization Uranium Watch. “I don’t know how Virginia Uranium could get around that technical detail.”
The amount of waste will also be massive. “This mine site is a large deposit but they don’t mention that while the size of ore body is large, the grade of ore is poor,” Jaffe said. “The average grade is 0.06 percent, which means that 99.94 percent is other stuff. To get the 63 million pounds of yellowcake they want to get out they have to manage 28.9 million tons of waste. VUI talks about energy independence for Virginia, but yellowcake will get shipped to an out-of-state enrichment facility. Our prize is the waste. It is really a question of Virginia being the uranium waste disposal capital of the East Coast.”
Where will all the waste go? An economic assessment prepared for Virginia Uranium by two engineering firms in June 2012 said, “Tailings planned for surface disposal, employing regulatory guidelines, shows that there is currently inadequate surface disposal acreage within the current surface land control area.”
After VUI began pushing for the moratorium to be lifted, the public pushed back. The resulting compromise was that the Virginia Coal and Energy Commission authorized a study (paid for by VUI to the tune of $1.4 million) from the National Academy of Sciences. “It had buy-in from all sides,” said Jaffe. “There were experts from all sides and public comments and an independent peer review committee.” The intention of the study wasn’t to provide a recommendation for whether the moratorium should be lifted, but to offer evidence for the public and for legislators to draw their own conclusions.
One of the biggest red flags point out that almost all uranium mining has taken place in arid parts of the country, but in rainy Virginia, the report found, “federal agencies have limited experience applying laws and regulations in positive water balance situations.”
Again, an issue of more rain than evaporation. There are also other concerns; the Southern Environmental Law Center found that in the last century, Virginia “has been hit by at least 78 category-strength hurricanes ... In 2011, at least 37 tornadoes were recorded in Virginia, including one in Halifax County about 20 miles from the Coles Hill site. And in August 2011, an earthquake of 5.8 rocked Virginia; its epicenter was just 125 miles from Coles Hill.”
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.
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."
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.
The governor has declared his intentions to make “Virginia the energy capital of the East Coast.” He has said, “Energy is the lifeblood of our nation's economic growth. More energy means more jobs and we need to use all of our domestic energy resources.”
Does this mean Gov. McDonnell is willing to use his political muscle to lift the ban? It’s not clear, but Virginia Uranium and its lobbyists are working hard — and may be seeking an alternate strategy instead of a straight vote on the ban. O’Connor reported for DC Bureau, "Whitt Clement, head of the state government relations team at Hunton & Williams and one of 19 lobbyists employed by Virginia Uranium, told a closed-door meeting of Virginia business leaders in Williamsburg last month that the company is working on legislation that would authorize state agencies to draft regulations to govern mining rather than voting directly on the project."
The Uranium Working Group’s findings were released just this week and it was news that State Senator John Watkins would be introducing legislation during the 2013 session to lift the moratorium. In a news release on December 3 he said, “I have made a request to Legislative Services for legislation that adheres to the principles outlined by the UWG (Uranium Working Group) and intend to be the patron of such a bill.”
If Virginia does vote to lift the moratorium it would only be for uranium mining – the milling would be overseen by the Nuclear Regulatory Committee, unless Virginia applies to be an “agreement state” and take over the monitoring of milling. In either case, Virginia Uranium would have many more hoops to jump through before its project could be approved by state and federal regulators.
A Matter of Economics
At a public meeting convened by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Uranium Working Group in Chatham during August, longtime resident Eloise Nenon told the audience she’s been fighting uranium mining in Virginia for 52 years. She started the first area organization with six women sitting around her dining room table. She believes that most of what would be mined in Virginia would be headed overseas; she said China is the primary market for Virginia’s uranium.
The U.S. imports about 90 percent of the uranium that is used in nuclear reactors, leaving many people to point to uranium mining in Virginia as a key to energy independence. But, as with fossil fuels such as coal, gas and oil, just because they are mined or drilled in the U.S., doesn’t mean they’ll be burned here. The energy industry operates on the global market, as Scott Harper reported for the Virginia Pilot:
Dominion Virginia Power, the state’s largest electric utility, operates the North Anna and Surry stations. Asked about possible uranium mining in the state, a corporate spokesman was ambivalent.
“We are trading in the world market for fuel and able to secure uranium at competitive prices to help keep our costs down for our customers,” Jim Norvelle, a Dominion spokesman, said in a statement. “It’s hard to know right now whether having a uranium mine in Virginia would be economic for us.”
During the Chatham meeting, resident Ian Kelly said he believes it’s best to know where one’s energy comes from, even if it’s eventually shipped overseas, and he likened it to the farm-to-table movement of local foods. It’s a sentiment similar to what Walter Coles himself has offered. He told the New York Times, “The country needs uranium. We need it for our ships, we need it for our nuclear power utilities. It’s better that we exploit our own natural resources as opposed to importing it.”
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.”
Ultimately, it will fall on the American taxpayers. “You have mining there and those tailings impoundments will be there foreverand have to be under government control forever,”Uranium Watch's Sarah Fields said.
And for what gain?
The fate of nuclear energy still seems in limbo as countries like Germany and Japan are swearing off it. In the U.S. the story is more complicated. The average age of our reactors is an elderly 32 years, but in February the OK was given to build the first new nuclear reactor in the country in 30 years. The nuclear industry generally seems one catastrophe away from collapse, and yet the industry clings to life in the U.S. only because of the generous will of taxpayers. What happens if the nuclear lobby falls out of favor in Washington due to public pressure or shifting economics?
In many ways, Virginia may be indicative of where our country’s energy future is headed. The state has dabbled in wind energy, but its attempts thus far are dwarfed by gas drilling, neighboring states’ fracking operations and mountaintop removal coal mines. If Governor McDonnell has his way, residents will also begin to see drilling in their coastal waters. Despite the best science indicating that the ramifications of climate change mean our energy policies are paving a road to a dead-end, we continue to drive full speed ahead. Proponents of the uranium mine echo similar sentiments as the pro-fracking and coal contingents — it’s about jobs and energy independence, they say.
But opponents see rural towns being turned into industrial zones. They fear not just for existing jobs, but are concerned for the air, water, food, quality of life, their health, and their homes. They worry about what will be sacrificed at the expense of an industry that will take what it wants, sell it for the highest price wherever that may be, and move on.
As fracking has spread throughout the East, some worry that the Coles Hill mine could be the first of many uranium mines in the East Coast.
“Geologists suspect that the Coles Hill deposit is not isolated,” writes Andrew Rice for the New Republic. “Scientists argue about the origins of the ore, but it’s most likely a remnant of the same ancient tectonic processes that created the Triassic Basins--meaning that there could be similar deposits up and down the East Coast. Robert Bodnar, a geochemistry professor at Virginia Tech, has spent the last two years studying how the uranium got to Coles Hill. ‘I think there’s a very high probability that there are other deposits of the same size, same grade, as Coles Hill located in the eastern United States,’ he told me.”
In an email to the Associated Press, Susan Hall of the U.S Geologic Survey wrote, “A common scenario in mineral exploration is that a large discovery such as Coles Hill is followed by an influx of exploration companies who comb the countryside and discover additional deposits.”
In the coming months, Virginia legislators will decide the fate of uranium mining in their state, but the vote may well be a harbinger for our energy future.