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Rural Community Debates Pros And Cons Of Uranium Mining

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Patrick Wales of Virginia Uranium at the Coles Hill site.
Patrick Wales of Virginia Uranium at the Coles Hill site.

Virginia's uranium deposit isn't a new discovery; mining industry geologists confirmed its existence three decades ago. But the state's legislators still haven't given those who want to mine it, the all clear to start digging it up, and many environmental advocates say that's the way it should stay.

Patrick Wales does not agree with those environmental advocates. He's walking down a gravel road in Chatham, Va., about 20 miles from the North Carolina border. There's a buzzing in the air coming from a device called a scintillometer.

"This is making a lot of noise, and the numbers are gonna be going up significantly," he says.

Wales works for Virginia Uranium. The company was founded by the Coles family, which has owned and lived on this piece of land, known as the Coles Hill property, since before the War of 1812. He walks a few more yards and lowers the scintillometer near some rocks by the side of the road.

"So put that down there," Wales says as the device begins emitting a high-pitched trill. "We're talking about a deposit right now that has over 22 times more energy than all of the oil and gas that's estimated to be off Virginia's coast. Located all on 100 acres, that's pretty remarkable."

Making a living in a mining town

Wales is a local himself, and bristles a little at those who suggest Virginia Uranium and uranium mining proponents aren't worried about maintaining the natural beauty of rural, Southside Virginia. He says it's that natural beauty that brought him back home after getting his geology degree out of state.

"In fact, I was one of those — like a lot of folks — who went off to college and thought that that would be the last time I ever saw Danville or the Southside of Virginia, because there are not a lot of ways to make a living around here," he says. "That's unfortunate."

Wales says the Coles Hill deposit could change that in a big way if the state lifts the moratorium on uranium mining, a moratorium that has been in place basically since the deposit was first discovered. Some estimates put the value of the uranium at Coles Hill at $7 billion, and that's value that proponents say translates into high-paying local jobs.

"There are not a lot of opportunities that have the chance to bring 1,000 jobs to this area, and these are good-paying jobs," Wales says. "These are jobs that will pay $65,000 a year, and you compare that to the median household income in our county — and it's less than $30,000. Household income — not individual."

Among local residents - it can be tough to get people to talk about the Uranium mining issue - not because there's any shortage of passion on either side: just the opposite.

Inside Pat's place, a popular local lunch spot in the nearby town of Chatham - an elderly man sharing a meal with his wife blurts out his feelings on the uranium controversy.

"The people who are against it don't know what the hell they're talking about," he says.

He won't give me his name, but he does give a reason.

"The people who are against it are so against it if they knew my name they'd probably burn my house down," he says. I ask if he's joking. "No!"

Residents voice concerns

Drive through Chatham and you'll see dozens of green and yellow pro-mining yard signs -- one slogan reads: "I dig uranium. It's about jobs."

But you'll see just as many black and white signs urging passersby to say "No to Uranium Mining."

Gena Mays works as a waitress in the pizza shop across the street from Pat's place. She says she'd like to see Coles Hill remain untouched.

"I think everybody should just leave it like it is," she says. "It's been just fine for years and years, and now everybody wants to change stuff."

Cale Jaffe is the director of the Southern Environmental Law Center's Charlottesville office. He says the main problem with the Coles Hill site is its location within the watershed of the Roanoke River, which provides drinking water to 1.1 million people.

Jaffe points out that the vast majority of material that would be brought out of the ground at the project would end up as waste product that would have to be stored on-site.

"According to The National Academy of Sciences, the waste from that project retains 85 percent of its original radioactivity," he says. "And you've gotta store that waste, inside the Roanoke river watershed, in perpetuity."

Patrick Wales of Virginia Uranium points out that a study by Virginia Tech shows that a properly placed waste containment facility built on-site poses no risk to the water supply even in the event of 38 inches of rain in 24 hours -- a scenario not even approached during Super storm Sandy.

Wales says the Coles family and Virginia Uranium are in favor of even more research and independent study of the site before any mining begins.

Jaffe says uranium mining is already one of the most closely examined environmental issues in recent Virginia history, and the results are in.

"We've spent millions of dollars and years in Virginia studying this issue, and the studies validate our core concerns," Jaffe says. "That's why this year the general assembly rejected an effort to lift the ban."

But proponents still insist that momentum is building for their cause.

Patrick Wales says it's important to remember that Virginians are no strangers to the benefits of nuclear energy. The state is home to two nuclear power plants and the nation's nuclear powered naval fleet.

"It's really important to point out that nuclear power is one of the safest, most affordable means of generating electricity," he says. "If we are going to get, as a country, very serious about things like climate change, nuclear may not be the answer, but there is no answer without nuclear."

Now Virginia Uranium and its opponents are waiting to see whether Gov. Bob McDonnell will attempt to address the Uranium mining moratorium by going around the legislature. Even if McDonnell holds off on taking up the issue, it will likely continue to be a bone of contention in this November's gubernatorial election.

[Music: "Energy" by The Apples in Stereo from New Magnetic]

Photos: Uranium Mining


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