Huge Uranium Deposit in Chatham, VA, Creates Controversy

I grew up in Martinsville, 30 miles west of Chatham. In that area, the local economy has been devastated by the loss of factory jobs to Asia. Energy independence in the U.S. is a top priority. Uranium mining is very "dirty", especially to the ground water.

This could be a heated battle involving some powerful players bringing national attention to a small town in rural Virginia. For example, in a July 26, 2008 editorial in the Wall Street Journal, Max Schulz (senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute) concluded with the following:

If the U.S. is to expand nuclear power’s role in a time of energy insecurity and climate change worries, we will have to confront the hysterical antinuclear pronouncements that have been the currency of environmentalists for nearly 30 years. The Old Dominion could be a good place for a new start.

Below are some excepts from an article in the Washington Post by Anita Kumar.

Link: Uranium Lode in Va. Is Feared, Coveted – washingtonpost.com.

CHATHAM, Va. — Underneath a plot of farmland used to raise cattle, hay and timber in south central Virginia lies what is thought to be the largest deposit of uranium in the United States.

Now, three decades after the deposit was found, landowner Walter Coles has set his sights on mining the 200-acre site despite concerns of environmental groups and residents about unearthed radioactive material that could contaminate the area’s land, air and source of drinking water.

As the United States searches for alternative energy sources, Virginia has a geological discovery in its back yard that could drastically change the nation’s reliance on foreign oil. The estimated 110 million pounds of uranium in Pittsylvania County, worth almost $10 billion, could supply all of the country’s nuclear power plants for about two years.

There’s a hurdle to clear before an ounce of the element can be mined: It’s illegal to dig for the stuff in Virginia. But the General Assembly is considering changing that.

Coles, 69, who recently retired from the federal government and moved from the Washington area back to the family farm, said mining companies have been offering to buy his land. Instead of taking the money, he decided to stay. He said he wanted to make sure that the mining was done safely and that it would benefit the community through jobs, taxes and economic development.

"There’s too much uranium here. Somebody’s going to mine it," Coles said. "I felt like while I was alive, it was my duty to make sure it was done right."

This month, Coles’s company, Virginia Uranium, will try to persuade the General Assembly to take the first step — approving a $1 million study that will explore whether uranium can be safely mined in Virginia. If the study shows that it can be done, the company will ask the legislature to lift a state ban on uranium mining.

The issue is dividing lawmakers, who will begin their 60-day session Jan. 9, but company officials have reasons to be optimistic.

Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) supports a study, and a state energy report released this fall recommends one. Coles’s brother-in-law, Whitt Clement, who served as a legislator and as state transportation secretary, is heading what is expected to be a strong lobbying effort. Henry Hurt, an investor and a childhood friend of Coles’s, has a son Robert, a Pittsylvania delegate who won a state Senate seat in November.

Virginia banned uranium mining in 1982, but Coles’s company recently got a state permit to drill 40 holes to examine the material.

A growing coalition of environmental groups and concerned residents, some of the same residents who helped institute the ban 30 years ago, have started spreading the word about their opposition and are planning to travel to Richmond to fight Coles. 

Uranium has never been mined in Virginia or on the East Coast, confined instead in the United States to drier, less populated areas such as Utah, New Mexico, Wyoming and Nebraska, according to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Uranium mining is more common in Canada, Australia, Eastern Europe and Africa.

Support for a Study

Two uranium deposits, which begin at the ground’s surface and run about 800 feet deep, were found in Coles Hill, near Chatham, a town of 1,300 residents where old Victorian houses line the streets. Tobacco was once a booming business on nearby farms but has given way to soybeans, hay and cattle.

Virginia Uranium wants to mine and mill uranium that would eventually be sold to companies for use at nuclear power plants.

The company was formed about a year ago by the Coles and Bowen families, which own adjoining property. Norman Reynolds, a former Marline president, was hired as chief executive.

Safety Concerns

Environmental groups, including the Piedmont Environmental Council and the Southern Environmental Law Center, say uranium should not be mined in Virginia’s highly populated areas and relatively rainy climate. They say they are worried that radioactive materials could contaminate natural resources, cause cancer or other illnesses and have long-term effects on plants and animals. The Coles Hill area supplies drinking water locally and to parts of Hampton Roads and North Carolina.

No matter how the uranium might be mined, it would need to be processed at a local milling facility. The result, a sandy substance called "yellow cake" uranium, would be packed into 55-gallon drums for shipping. Company officials say the processed uranium is not hazardous. It doesn’t become dangerous until it undergoes a later process that would be done elsewhere.

Coles, whose family has lived in a historic brick house on the property for two centuries, said he and his family have never had health problems, although tests show the area has higher than normal levels of radioactivity.

He said he plans to continue living at Coles Hill regardless of whether the uranium is mined.