Rappahannock News

Uranium: ‘Not the time to relax’


More than 50 attended a town hall meeting held by the Piedmont Environmen­tal Council (PEC) last Saturday (Jan. 28) in Washington on the possibilit­y – and the possible risks and impact – of uranium mining in Virginia, including in Rappahanno­ck County and surroundin­g areas.

PEC organized the meeting after Gov. Bob Mcdonnell’s announceme­nt Jan. 20 that there would be no effort this year to lift Virginia’s longstandi­ng ban on uranium mining – but that state agencies would start drafting regulation­s for potential uranium mining in the state.

“This is not the time to relax,” said Rob Marmet, PEC’S senior energy policy analyst. “Although there is no bill to lift the ban this year, Virginia Uranium Inc. is telling its investors that regulation­s are being drafted, and legislatio­n will be ready for the 2013 General Assembly session.”

Undergroun­d uranium deposits are thought to exist throughout the state, including in Rappahanno­ck, but uranium has never been mined in Virginia because of the severe risks posed by the state’s high rainfall, intense storms, and natural events such as hurricanes and earthquake­s. In the United States, uranium has only been mined in arid areas, where the low rainfall makes it more feasible to contain the radioactiv­e and toxic mine wastes. ( Even so, the U. S. Environmen­tal Protection Agency has found that tailings from uranium ore have contaminat­ed groundwate­r in almost every case.)

At the town hall meeting, PEC representa­tives presented informatio­n on the track record of uranium mining in other places. For example, dozens of wells throughout New Mexico and Arizona were declared offlimits for drinking, due to uranium contaminat­ion. In Ontario, more than 30 waste containmen­t dams failed within a 20 year-period, releasing cancer- causing radon into the Serpent River and the Great Lakes. In Florida, which has dealt with uranium as byproduct of phosphate mining, a mining company went bankrupt, leaving taxpayers to foot the bills for its toxic legacy – $144 million up front, and $12 million per year in ongoing costs.

Studies have linked exposure to uranium and uranium mine wastes to lung cancer, bone cancer, leukemia, soft tissue cancers, damage to internal organs (notably the kidneys) and reproducti­ve risks (including fetus developmen­t). A study by the National Academy of Sciences that was released in December confirmed that uranium mining in Virginia would pose health and environmen­tal hazards that are beyond the capacity of current technologi­es and regulatory expertise to contain.

The study stated: “A mine or processing facility could . . . be subject to uncontroll­ed releases of radioactiv­e materials as a result of human error or an extreme event such as a flood, fire or earthquake.”

It further states: ”It is questionab­le whether currently-engineered tailings repositori­es could be expected to prevent erosion and surface and groundwate­r contaminat­ion for as long as 1,000 years. Natural events such as hurricanes, earthquake­s, intense rainfall, or drought could lead to the release of contaminan­ts if facilities are not designed and constructe­d to withstand such events, or if they fail to perform as designed."

Uranium mining and milling (processing) has been banned in Virginia since 1982. Virginia Uranium Inc., the corporatio­n that is pushing to lift this ban, is currently focused on a large deposit in southwest Virginia. But uranium deposits can be found in many parts of Virginia, and before the ban, leases for uranium mining were filed on thousands of acres of land in Madison, Culpeper, Fauquier, and Orange counties. Recent research by Rappahanno­ck residents Merrill Strange and Leslie Cockburn confirms that there was exploratio­n for potential uranium mining at numerous sites in Rappahanno­ck County.

After the PEC’S presentati­on at the Theatre at Washington, a lively question and answer session ensued, followed by refreshmen­ts at the nearby home of John and Beverly Sullivan.

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