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Have Plans For Uranium Mining in Virginia Finally Been Defeated?

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Roadside signs in Chatham, Virginia.
Photo Credit: Tara Lohan

This article was published in partnership with  GlobalPossibilities.org.

Across Virginia, there is celebration. A significant blow was dealt yesterday to forces that sought to lift a 30-year uranium mining moratorium in the state. As I wrote back in December, southern Virginia is home to one of the world’s largest uranium deposits:

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.

A fight has been raging in the state ever since, with a diverse alliance of local businesses, farmers, residents, and environmental advocates fighting to keep the moratorium in place. The AP reports that legislative efforts to bring uranium mining to Virginia have failed ... for now:

A proposal to mine uranium in Virginia was abruptly abandoned Thursday in the Legislature, and supporters scrambled to appeal directly to the governor to salvage what would be the first full-scale mining operation of the radioactive ore on the East Coast.

Unable to deliver the votes in the General Assembly, Sen. John Watkins withdrew his legislation to establish state regulations for uranium mining in Southside Virginia, a rural area along the North Carolina state line and home to the largest known deposit of the radioactive ore in the U.S.

But the issue won’t die easily, of course. As the AP reports, “Watkins instead asked fellow Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell to use his administrative powers to have state agencies draw up the rules. McDonnell has not taken a position on the divisive issue and his spokesman J. Tucker Martin said the governor was reviewing the request.”

Will the governor thwart the will of the people and most of their legislators? That remains to be seen. But there is ample evidence that uranium mining, a dirty business to begin with, could be even more catastrophic if done in Virginia — an area subject to hurricanes, flooding, tornadoes, earthquakes, and all manner of catastrophic weather.

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