Public has say on Virginia uranium study

VIRGINIA - The potential for air and water contamination should be thoroughly studied before Virginia considers mining at one of the world's largest deposits of the radioactive ore, environmentalists told lawmakers.

The legislators also heard the wide-ranging concerns of residents, scientists and industry groups on what a study examining the impact of mining should entail. The subcommittee of the Virginia Commission on Coal and Energy plans further meetings to help frame the study.

While the hearing was intended to guide the uranium mining subcommittee on the scientific study, some speakers were skeptical any mining of the Southside Virginia deposit would not foul water, air or farmland.

"Once the pollution gets out, nobody says that you can clean it up, because you can't," said Jack Dunavant of Southside Concerned Citizens, which is opposed to lifting the moratorium. "Uranium mining is the dirty end of the nuclear energy business and it has never been done safely anywhere in the world."

The U.S. now produces only a fraction of the 65 million pounds of uranium ore used domestically each year, according to industry sources. The Virginia deposit alone, estimated at 110 million pounds, could fuel the nation's nuclear power plants for two years.

The yellow cake ore is now primarily mined in Canada, Australia and Russia.

The study will pair the Virginia Center for Coal and Energy Research at Virginia Tech with the National Academy of Sciences. The "world class study" will involve 15 to 20 scientists and take approximately one and a half years to complete, said Michael Karmis of the Virginia Center for Coal and Energy Research.

Virginia Uranium Inc. wants to begin mining the ore as U.S. interest in nuclear power is rekindled years after the Chernobyl and Three Mile Island accidents.

Walter Coles owns the Chatham property, about 20 miles north of the North Carolina border, and a controlling interest in the company. He said his family traces its link to the land to the 1780s and has deeded it to family members for the next century. He said the land would be restored to its current state after mining ended.

"We cherish the land and we want to be good stewards," he said.

Environmental groups argued that the Virginia mining would be sharply different from the arid terrain in which most of the world's uranium mining is conducted. They argued any study should examine any comparable mining sites with relatively rainy climates.

"Let's deal with this head-on," said W. Todd Benson of the Piedmont Environmental Council. "Show us where it's been done properly in comparable places. Let's see where this good science has worked."

Virginia has had a moratorium on uranium mining since the 1980s. The nation, however, has seen a renewed interest in nuclear power and energy independence, and President-elect Barack Obama has said he does not oppose the energy source.

Gov. Timothy M. Kaine supports the study, but has not taken a stand on mining.


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