League Lines: Mining for Answers

Ranger Uranium Mine_Roanoke Valley Chapter

Virginia >> Members of the Roanoke Valley Chapter are working to protect water quality in southern Virginia through education and advocacy work on uranium mining.

At issue is a 30-year-old state ban on uranium mining. According to Roanoke Valley Chapter president Scot Sutherland, “Back in late 1970s, a Canadian company came looking for uranium deposits they could mine. There was a lot of debate and push- back at the time.” In response, the Virginia legislature put a uranium mining ban in place while a state commission studied potential environmental and health impacts. Uranium prices dropped, and so did the mining proposal. The state never developed mining regulations, but the uranium mining ban stayed in place. Local activists kept an eye on the issue, knowing that the site could be of interest to mining companies in the future. “In 2007, when Virginia Uranium came in to poke holes and get an assessment on how the ore flows through the underground strata,” says Sutherland, “a grassroots movement started again.”

Uranium is a naturally occurring metal found in all rocks and soil — usually at such small concentrations that it is not harmful to humans. The proposed mining site in Virginia’s Pittsylvania County is different. Scientists estimate that the site contains up to 119 million pounds of uranium, which would make it the largest source of uranium in the country (and the seventh largest in the world), worth about $7 billion based on today’s market prices. That’s a sizeable incentive to mine the ore.

But uranium mining also comes with sizeable risks. Members of the Roanoke Valley Chapter are concerned specifically about what happens after the ore is extracted. “The way they do it is they pull the ore out of ground and put it in a solution to extract the uranium, and everything else that’s left (including radioactive isotopes and extraction chemicals) is put in tailing ponds that open to the environment,” explains Sutherland. In fact, the uranium itself makes up less than one percent of the total extracted materials. What’s left, called “tailings,” will remain radioactive for more than one thousand years. “Hurricanes, tornadoes, and even earthquakes are a danger,” Sutherland continues. After such a catastrophic event, radioactive materials could flow into the Roanoke River drainage, contaminating fish and wildlife habitat as well as drinking water supplies for millions of people who live downstream. 

Closer to the proposed drilling site, residents are also concerned about well water contamination and radioactive dust. “One study gave a radius of 50-60 miles around the mine that particulates could be blown by wind,” says Sutherland. The Roanoke Valley Chapter is located within 50 miles of the pro- posed mining site.

While the issue was being debated in public forums and the state capital, the Roanoke Valley Chapter invited speakers from both sides of the debate to make presentations to the chapter. At the first meeting, a chapter member who works in the nuclear industry gave a presentation on the potential positives of the proposed mine. The following month, a representative from the Keep the Ban coalition gave a presentation on why the coalition would like to continue the mining ban. Both events were open to the public, and local delegates as well as a state senator also at- tended. One of the delegates had been on a trip abroad with the mining company to look at uranium mining sites in other countries, and he provided a wealth of information to chapter members, says Sutherland.

After these meetings, Sutherland encouraged chapter members to contact their state representatives on this issue. He also developed a network among conservation organizations in the area to share information.

In mid-January, Virginia governor Bob McDonnell asked the state legislature to postpone a vote on lifting the mining moratorium until 2013 so a new multi-agency group could draft regulations for a possible uranium mining industry in the state and study the proposed mining site. However, Sutherland is concerned about the governor moving forward to draft regulations while the issue is still being studied. This could signal an intent to open up the state to uranium mining no matter what the results are from further environmental impact studies. Until the next move is made, Sutherland says, “It’s a wait and see situation.”

If the mining ban is lifted, industry could open uranium mines throughout the state. So while the Roanoke Valley Chapter’s immediate concern is in their own backyard, they are also looking ahead to other possible impacts. That’s why the chapter submitted a request for the Virginia Division to adopt a resolution against uranium mining across the state.