The News Desk is a collection of news, notes and breaking items affecting the Fredericksburg community.
Uranium report says local sites not viable
By RUSTY DENNEN
Uranium mining and milling in Virginia would present human health and safety and environmental risks, which could be mitigated with best-management practices, according to a long-awaited National Academy of Sciences study released Monday.
And, of interest to the Fredericksburg area, it concludes that only Virginia Uranium’s proposed Coles Hill site in Pittsylvania County would be commercially viable among Virginia deposits, for now. The site is about 180 miles southwest of Fredericksburg.
The NAS’ National Research Council study, supported by a grant from Virginia Tech and funded by Virginia Uranium Inc., makes no recommendation as to whether mining should be allowed.
Scientific, technical, environmental, human health and safety, and regulatory aspects of mining the radioactive ore are evaluated across the state.
The study comes as the Virginia General Assembly could decide during its session starting next month to lift a mining moratorium imposed in 1982.
Paul A. Locke, who chaired the committee that prepared the 290-page report, told reporters Monday that the Pittsylvania site appears to be “the only commercially and economically viable” location to extract uranium ore in the commonwealth.
That should ease concerns here because in the 1970s, Marline Uranium Corp. secured leases on thousands of acres in Orange, Culpeper, Madison and Fauquier counties, with a plan to mine and mill the mineral.
Marline eventually settled on the richer Pittsylvania deposit. Leases here were withdrawn in the early 1980s when uranium prices plummeted after the 1979 partial meltdown at Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania.
In response to the Marline plan, the Orange County Board of Supervisors in the early 1980s passed a resolution recognizing “a threat to the county water supply and its agriculture products via the possible mining and milling of uranium.”
In 2007, Orange supervisors, Planning Commission and Farm Bureau voted unanimously to ask lawmakers to continue the moratorium. The supervisors recently restated that position.
If lawmakers lift the moratorium, opponents say, it could open up other areas across the state to mining.
Patrick Wales, Virginia Uranium’s project manager, has said the company wants to mine only at Coles Hill, though the company reportedly told investors that other Virginia deposits could be developed.
Locke, a professor of environmental science at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said even if the moratorium is lifted, it would take five to eight years for any mining to commence.
Any licensee would face “steep hurdles,” he said, to allow for a regulatory setting that protects workers, the public and the environment, given that Virginia has no such framework for mining radioactive materials.
“Internationally accepted best practices, which include timely and meaningful public participation, are available to mitigate some of the risks involved,” Locke said. “However, there are still many unknowns.”
Groups on both sides of the issue were reviewing the document Monday.
“Virginia Uranium believes this study provides a clear road map and path forward for operating the world’s safest uranium mine in Virginia,” Wales said in a press release.
“The study shows that major technological and regulatory advances over the past 30 years have dramatically improved the environmental and public health performance of the uranium mining and milling industry.”
Gov. Bob McDonnell said all energy development should be pursued “if it will create jobs, spur our economy, reduce Virginia’s and the nation’s dependence on foreign energy supplies, and be done in a safe and responsible manner.”
He said state regulatory agencies will do a “detailed and thorough review” and that he expects to have their analysis by early next month.
Chris Miller, president of the Warrenton-based Piedmont Environmental Council, said the report “confirms that uranium mining would be a dangerous experiment for Virginia” and that “neither the mining industry nor federal or state regulators have any experience with uranium mining or milling” in areas with a relatively wet climate, such as Virginia. Most uranium mining worldwide is done in dry climates.
The Keep the Ban Coalition said the General Assembly should take no action toward developing regulations until after the NAS has completed a public outreach on the study’s conclusions.
Rusty Dennen: 540/374-5431
Virginia Uranium Inc.’s Coles Hill site in Pittsylvania County is the only commercially viable site in the state.
Uranium mining and processing carries with it a wide range of potential adverse human health risks.
A detailed assessment of both the potential site and its surrounding area (including natural, historical and social characteristics) would be needed.
It is not yet possible to predict what specific type of uranium mining or processing might apply to ore deposits in Virginia.
A mining project could affect surface water quality and quantity, groundwater quality and quantity, soils, air quality and organisms in the vicinity.
Because of the 1982 moratorium, the state has no experience regulating uranium mining and there is no regulatory infrastructure.
Planning should take into account all aspects of the process—including the eventual closure, site remediation and reclamation—prior to initiation of a project, and there should be opportunities for public involvement throughout.
For more on the report, nationalacademies.org
—National Research Council of the National Academies