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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.

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.

Extreme Energy

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.

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