The largest county in Virginia, Pittsylvania, lies in Southside Virginia, about halfway across the state from east to west, bordering North Carolina, in the heart of the Roanoke River basin. With a history dating to 1767, this rural county hosts the city of Danville in the south, the birthplace of Nancy and Irene Langhorne - the former being Lady Astor, the first woman to sit in the British Parliament, and the latter being Mrs. Gibson, the inspiration for her artist husband's famous "Gibson Girls."

With a median annual household income of less than $40,000 and an unemployment rate of up to 10 percent (compared to the statewide rate of 6 percent), the county faces economic challenges much different from those of the luxurious lifestyles of these two famous Victorian ladies.

The county is still a farming community for many, including the Coles family, which raises cattle on its farm on Coles Hill. For years, the family farm produced tobacco, as did many of the county's farms. Five generations of the Coles have worked Coles Hill; the family received the land by grant from Thomas Jefferson when he was governor.

Little did then-Governor Jefferson know that in the 21st century, the land would be recognized as part of the largest undeveloped uranium deposit in the United States, and the seventh largest in the world, sparking a public debate involving national energy policy, regional environmental concerns and local economic opportunities.

A debate that would:

  • Raise questions about the potential economic benefits for the Coles and others with lands laden with uranium.
  • Prompt a study by the prestigious National Academy of Sciences; a study confirming the risks that extraction could present across the commonwealth.
  • Drive a controversial directive by the governor of Virginia for the development of a "conceptual regulatory framework" for mining even while a statewide moratorium exists.
  • Lead former director of the Chesapeake Bay Program Rebecca Hanmer to conclude that uranium mining presents an environmental risk to Virginia and its natural resources so great that "everything else past and present pales in comparison."

Virginia Uranium, Inc.

Virginia Uranium, Inc. states that it is "working to bring the economic benefits of uranium development to Virginia and advance the energy independence of America." Its mission may be more succinctly described as one seeking to mine the uranium that lies beneath the Coles family farm and surrounding lands.

A Virginia-owned, Virginia- managed company founded by the Coles family, the company now trades on stock markets in the United States and Canada (through "Virginia Energy Resources"). While its original investors included more than 30 Virginia farmers and business owners, and the company states that local families still control 78 percent of the company stock, the local character of Virginia Uranium is now supplemented by "people with successful experiences in mining all over the world." For example, one member of its board is the CEO of Denison Mines Corp., a company that works on uranium mining around the world, from Mongolia and Zambia to the western United States.

Since 2007, $39 million has been invested in Virginia Uranium's effort to allow uranium mining in Southside Virginia, the company reports.

The moratorium

The presence of the uranium deposit on Coles Hill has been known for many years. Subsequent to its discovery in 1978, the Virginia General Assembly in 1982 placed a temporary moratorium on uranium mining in the commonwealth. The 1982 law prohibits the mining of uranium until "a program for permitting uranium mining is permitted by statute." To date, Virginia has developed no such program.

As noted by Virginia State Sen. John C. Watkins, there was considerable study done on the issue of uranium mining after the adoption of the 1982 law. This yielded a conclusion by the Virginia Coal and Energy Commission - a legislative commission established by the Virginia General Assembly, not an executive branch permitting agency like the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy - that Virginia could lift the moratorium "if essential recommendations" from a uranium mining task force were enacted into law.

Instead of considering the "essential recommendations," the legislature took no further action and the moratorium stayed in effect. The company then interested in conducting the mining concluded that it was not economically viable.

In 2007, however, in response to the reinvigorated commercial interest in mining from Virginia Uranium, the commission instigated two major studies.

The first study was conducted by the National Academy of Sciences. It focused on whether the mining can be, according to Watkins, "undertaken in a manner that safeguards the environment, natural and historic resources, agricultural lands and the health and well-being of [Virginia's] citizens."

The second study, conducted by the Richmond firm Chmura Economics & Analytics, focused on the socioeconomic impacts.

The studies' outcomes

Unlike other historic locations for uranium mining, Virginia has a much wetter climate with more extreme weather events. Uranium mining in the United States has, to date, been done in dry climates with limited rainfalls. The NAS study noted that "large precipitation events and earthquakes" in Virginia had the potential to "lead to the release of contaminants if facilities are not designed and constructed to withstand such an event." These facilities include those storing mine "tailings." Tailings are the waste left after the uranium is separated from the ore. Uranium tailings contain a substantial level of radioactivity.

Along with its findings on climatological conditions and weather events, the NAS study also raised concerns about the potential contamination of local waters by the radioactive material in the tailings. "Tailings disposal sites represent significant potential sources of contamination for thousands of years, and the long-term risks remain poorly defined," the report stated.

Former director Hanmer concurred with the report, arguing that uranium mining could leave a "legacy of toxic spoils that will not go away for centuries."

The study noted there is also a lack of technical expertise and experience in federal and state agencies for "applying laws and regulations" in climates like that of Virginia.

In conclusion, the NAS advised that if Virginia were to rescind the moratorium, "there are steep hurdles to be surmounted before mining or processing could be established within a regulatory environment that is appropriately protective of the health and safety of workers, the public, and the environment."

On the socioeconomic front, the Chmura report concluded that "the mining and milling operations would bring substantial and much-needed economic benefits to Pittsylvania County, the immediately surrounding areas, and the state." This included 1,000 jobs annually for 35 years and an annual net economic impact of around $135 million.

Chmura specifically noted that these millions of dollars were the "net positive economic impact" after subtracting out a "broad array of potential socioeconomic costs (such as public health and the environment) and negative 'stigma' effects on some sectors (such as tourism and agriculture)." However, Chmura premised its conclusions on the assumption that federal regulations would reduce these environmental and public health risks to "negligible" levels.

Should the operation and decommissioning of the mining have a "severe environmental impact," then the net economic impact would be negative, not positive. Chmura defined a "severe environmental impact" as one where contamination of "both water and at least one other area (air, soil or noise) exceeds the limits set by current federal standards."

Uranium & the Chesapeake

The questions surrounding the impacts from mining uranium are not geographically restricted to Southside Virginia. According to the NAS report, there are 55 identified uranium sites in the commonwealth. While the Coles Hill site is outside the Chesapeake Bay watershed, others are not. Many of the sites are located in the Piedmont and Blue Ridge regions, where the Potomac and James and their feeder rivers flow. To date, though, only the Coles Hill deposit is "large enough, and of a high enough grade, to be potentially economically viable," the NAS study stated.

The current economics have not prevented a debate over the impact of lifting the moratorium in these other regions. Fairfax County, one of Virginia's most populous and politically powerful jurisdictions, is full of creeks and runs that drain into the Chesapeake's Potomac River. This includes the historic Bull Run of the Civil War as well as the Occoquan River and reservoir, a primary drinking water supply for the county.

Mining leases exist in the Occoquan watershed. Acknowledging such, the county's Environmental Quality Advisory Council recently adopted a resolution recommending to the Board of Supervisors that it support the retention of the moratorium.

The most vocal jurisdiction opposing the lifting of the moratorium is the City of Virginia Beach. The city's major drinking water supply is Lake Gaston, located on the Roanoke River. According to Thomas M. Leahy, director of public utilities for the city, a "catastrophic failure" of a tailings disposal site would contaminate the drinking water supply coming from the lake and river. The city has done "worst case modeling" that establishes the likelihood of contamination with "reasonable certainty," leading to radioactivity levels in the water anywhere from five to 50 times greater than that permitted by current federal law.

Leahy argued that similar risks exist if mining were to occur in other river basins, such as the James, thereby threatening the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.

In a memo to the city manager, Leahy noted that the uranium's location on Coles Hill was "prone to significant flooding," arguing that the moratorium must remain in place until Virginia adopts "a permanent and sustainable culture and philosophy in which compliance with laws and regulations is only the first step to a regulatory approval."

Leahy concluded, "In my opinion, the opposite - minimum compliance with laws and regulations - is the current norm in Virginia."

What's next?

The debate over lifting the moratorium reached the Virginia General assembly in 2012 with legislators arguing both for and against. Five Southside legislators penned a letter to maintain the moratorium in response to the NAS study, saying that the report was "sending clear warning signals" against the mining of uranium in Virginia.

In contrast, Watkins concluded that the nation will solve its air pollution problems only through the use of nuclear energy, and favored lifting the moratorium. Virginia can conduct "a full examination" on how to conduct mining to "ensure the safety of the community and of the people working in the mines," Watkins said.

Acknowledging that the "safety of the environment" is an equally essential element of mining, the senator argued that a moratorium is nothing but a not-in-my-backyard statement of "don't bother me with the facts."

According to the Keep the Ban coalition, more than 10,000 citizens have advised the General Assembly of their support for continuing the moratorium and 85 government entities and nonprofit groups have expressed "deep concerns" over lifting it.

In the midst of the debate, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell asked the General Assembly to forgo taking any action and issued a directive establishing a Uranium Working Group. While the governor acknowledged in the directive that there are "important questions related to the health and safety of workers, the public, and the environment" that "must be addressed before an informed determination" on lifting the moratorium should be made, the charge he gave to the working group was to create "a draft statutory and conceptual regulatory framework that could be used to govern all aspects" of mining uranium in the commonwealth. The group is to present its findings to the Coal and Energy Commission by Dec. 1, just prior to the 2013 General Assembly session.

Former director of Virginia's Department of Environmental Quality, Robert G. Burnley, now partnering with the Southern Environmental Law Center in its efforts to maintain the moratorium, challenged the legitimacy of the Uranium Working Group process. He noted that the development of the "regulatory framework" is not being conducted under the open-government parameters established by Virginia's administrative process.

To further emphasize his concern, Burnley noted that he has been advised that the current work products of the group are classified as "governor's working papers," making them inaccessible under Virginia's Freedom of Information Act.

Confusion and criticism over the transparency of the work group's process led McDonnell's chief of staff, Martin L. Kent, to issue two recent letters correcting "mischaracterizations" regarding public comment, participation and openness. He advised the Coal and Energy Commission that the Uranium Working Group will "periodically report its progress and accept input from the public during four open meetings."

"Ultimately, it is the General Assembly that must decide whether or not to lift the uranium moratorium," Kent noted. And if it does so, directing the state agencies to promulgate regulations that process "will follow the Administrative Process Act."

Roy Hoagland, an attorney and consultant, has been engaged in developing Chesapeake Bay policy for more than 25 years.