Virginia’s Uranium Mining Moratorium

Learn about the risks associated with uranium mining in a humid climate like exists in Virginia and find out how you can help prevent the mining moratorium from being lifted.

Virginia Uranium Proponents are Desperate

Just a few short months ago the Virginia General Assembly responded to the will of the people — legislators were forced to withdraw a bill that would have lifted the state-wide ban on Uranium mining. As we said then, this was an important victory, but not the final one. Now as we near the end of Governor McDonnell's term, mining backers are conducting a heavy handed PR campaign. They are hoping to persuade the Governor to act against the will of the General Assembly — pressuring him to draft rules that would lift the decades old ban on uranium mining and milling in Virginia. This text was taken from an email alert sent out on June 4th, 2013.

Uranium Mining: Going…Going…Gone?

Uranium Mining: Going…Going…Gone?

In 2007, Virginia Uranium, Inc. (VUI) made their intentions clear: they were going to persuade lawmakers to lift the Commonwealth’s standing moratorium on uranium mining and milling. The company had their eyes set on a large deposit of uranium in Southwest Virginia, and they adamantly ignored the numerous warnings and unknowns. Determined to break ground in Pittsylvania County, VUI poured millions into a massive lobbying effort and PR campaign to make it happen. They pulled all of the stops— including flying legislators to France.

Uranium Mining… Going, Going, Gone?

After a big push, Uranium mining proponents have realized they simply don't have the votes. Seeing the writing on the wall, Senator John C. Watkins (R – Powhatan) officially withdrew his bill to lift the ban this afternoon.

My co-worker Rob and I were there, and quite frankly it was pretty exciting. We were a part of a packed crowd from around the state who had traveled to Richmond to show support for keeping the ban. It was great to have something go our way. Continue reading this January 31st email alert:

Time To Write Your State Reps About Uranium

The bills to lift the ban on uranium mining and milling have officially hit Richmond. Despite widespread opposition from local governments and businesses, HB 2330 and SB 1353 were submitted and are now moving through their respective committees — putting the health of Virginia's air, water and ultimately its people at risk. Unfortunately, these bills are as bad as we expected them to be. Proponents claim that mining would be limited to Pittsylvania County, but the bills are drafted in a way that would allow mining throughout the Commonwealth with simple amendments. Continue reading this January 25th email alert:

The Curse of the Yellow Powder

 

Is it possible to restore a landscape damaged by uranium? Ask the Navajo in New Mexico.

This fall, near Teddy Nez’s house on the Navajo reservation near Gallup, N.M., men in earth-moving equipment were scraping away the topsoil, up to three feet deep, which had been contaminated by radioactivity from abandoned uranium mines. In earlier phases of this project, starting in 2007, crews had torn out 100-year-old junipers and piñon pines and had clawed earth away from the remaining trees, which weakened them, even after replacement soil was trucked in. The machines had flayed hillsides, whose cover of flowering shrubs and fragrant herbs has yet to grow back. “It looks like a B-52 hit it,” Nez told me, recalling an image from his service in Vietnam.

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Teddy Nez, who works as a a Community and Environmental Health Specialist with the Southwest Research and Information Center, believes that decades of exposure to contamination from two unreclaimed uranium mines near his house on Navajo land in New Mexico made him and his family sick. He and his five children and seven grandchildren all suffer from respiratory issues, he says. Photo by Rose Jenkins

On our way to his house, Nez pointed out a notch in a bank of yellow grassland at the head of an arroyo. That’s where the Church Rock uranium mill tailings dam broke in 1979, releasing over 1,000 tons of radioactive wastes and millions of gallons of highly acidic water into the Puerco River, an intermittent stream that flows toward the Colorado River. The Church Rock dam failure was the largest radioactive release in U.S. history, by volume — larger than the Three Mile Island disaster the same year.

Nez’s house was upstream of the breached dam but the ground around it was contaminated by dust drifting off of the mountainous piles of waste rock from two nearby uranium mines, which have been out of production for almost 30 years. Nez believes that the continuous exposure has made him and his family sick. His whole family suffers from respiratory problems, he says — himself, his five children, and his seven grandchildren.

For years, he and his neighbors fought for a clean-up, he says, but nothing happened. Finally, in 2007, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) informed them that their situation was an emergency. Radiation levels at Nez’s home measured up to ten times higher than normal background levels for the area.

Nez recounts, “The U.S. EPA says due to the human risk factor, get the people out. And they tell us, we’re going to move you out permanently, relocate you permanently. We say no. And the reason we’re saying no is… our culture, tradition. Our grandma and grandpa, they were here. So we don’t want to leave that land.”

The Navajo had been forced off of this land once before, when they were marched into exile by Kit Carson’s troops in 1864. Four years later, the tribe regained a portion of its homeland. Although many people had died, and their homes, livestock, fields, and orchards were destroyed, the Navajo returned to start over in the land between their four sacred mountains. Now, Nez and his community were unwilling to abandon their land. Clean it up, they demanded.

But what I saw in Navajo country made me wonder how much you can really clean up after uranium, if contaminants get into the soil, the water, the air, the plants, the animals.

I was particularly interested because of the debate over allowing uranium mining and milling (processing) in Virginia, my home state. Obviously, the circumstances are very different. Uranium was dug out of Navajo lands starting in the 1940s, in the rush to build the first atomic weapons and then to build up a Cold War arsenal. Virtually no effort was made to protect workers, the environment, or the community — although radiation was known to be dangerous. The tragedies endured by the Navajo resulted from uranium operations using crude, out-of-date methods, with little regard for human life or health. Times have changed.

Still, it’s worth noting what uranium can do to a landscape, what we can fix, and what we can’t.

When I met Nez, he and his family were living in a hotel to avoid inhaling hazardous dust stirred up by the excavation. He believes that when the soil removal and reclamation of nearby mines is done, his land will be safe to live on — but it’s unclear where the contaminated material will ultimately go. For now, the EPA’s plan is to move it down the road, to the top of an unlined pile of mill tailings near the site of the Church Rock dam failure.

Nez, who works as a Community and Environmental Health Specialist with the Southwest Research and Information Center (SRIC), wants the radioactive wastes to be hauled to a repository in Idaho – but the EPA has determined that relocating these wastes is unnecessary and too expensive. According to Chris Shuey, Director of the Uranium Impact Assessment Program at SRIC, hauling the wastes to Idaho would shoot the cost to reclaim one of the mines from an estimated $45 million to $293 million.

There are 520 abandoned uranium mines in the Navajo Nation.

* * * * *

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A juniper tree on a mesa on Navajo land in New Mexico overlooks a pile of waste rock from an abandoned uranium mine, which is subject to an ongoing clean-up effort. Photo by Rose Jenkins

Navajo territory extends over 27,000 square miles in the Four Corners area of the American Southwest. In this sparsely populated desert, approximately 30% of the population is not connected to a public water supply, so people drink from the sources available, including springs and private wells.

Out of approximately 375 Navajo water sources tested by various agencies, according to data compiled by SRIC, more than a quarter contain excess levels of contaminants that could derive from uranium operations — including arsenic in 17% and uranium in 10%.

In response, the EPA shut down three of the most contaminated sources. The agency is also working with local partners, including SRIC, to publicize warnings about hazardous water sources and to provide safe drinking water for thousands of homes. That addresses people’s immediate needs, but it doesn’t resolve the underlying problem — the polluted groundwater.

I asked the EPA if there was any chance the groundwater could ever be treated enough to be safe to drink.

“Our first goal is to make sure people are not being exposed to contaminated groundwater,” Rusty Harris-Bishop, an EPA spokesperson, told me. Before the agency could attempt to fix the groundwater itself, he said, it would need to see evidence that contamination derives from industrial activity and not from naturally occurring uranium. In that case, the EPA would weigh potential clean-up measures against criteria such as cost-effectiveness, protectiveness, and practicality. According to Harris-Bishop, the success of such measures, if implemented, would depend, in part, on how widespread the contamination is. More localized problems are likely to be resolved with more success.

If pollution from uranium sites gets into the environment, how does it affect people’s health?

Historically, the most obvious toll is that thousands of uranium miners who worked during the first boom, including over 1,000 Navajos, died of lung disease. Many other people, like Nez, believe that pollution from uranium sites has made them sick. But the link between exposure and illness can be hard to prove due to the complexity of factors that cause disease and limited research. Some people argue that exposure to uranium wastes is not as dangerous as many Americans assume. (See “The Uranium Widows,” by Peter Hessler).

A well-known set of studies by Dr. John D. Boice, of the Vanderbilt School of Medicine, finds that living in proximity to uranium operations does not correlate with increased rates of mortality from cancer, except among miners.

Shuey, who holds a Masters of Public Health, notes that Boice’s research ignores a wide range of non-malignant health impacts, and points to studies that link uranium-related pollution to kidney disease, diabetes, hypertension, autoimmune diseases, miscarriages, stillbirths, and birth defects. Shuey also argues that more detailed information about exposure — rather than just proximity — will yield more precise results. An ongoing study among the Navajo, by a team of researchers at the University of New Mexico, including Shuey, shows increased rates of health problems the closer people live to uranium sites and the higher their level of reported exposure.

In Yellow Dirt, journalist Judy Pasternak describes how thoroughly the leavings of uranium operations infiltrated Navajo people’s lives. Pregnant women drank water from lakes left by pit mines. Families built foundations and stucco walls out of the sandy mine wastes. Children played on tailings piles. Livestock grazed around the mouths of unreclaimed mines (and still do, according to a recent New York Times article). Pasternak chronicles case after case of lung cancer, stomach cancer, children with deformities — death after death.

The Navajo decided that they have reason enough to be done with uranium extraction, at least while so many problems remain. In 2005, the tribe passed the Diné Natural Resources Protection Act, banning uranium mining and milling on their lands. The act states as its purpose: “to ensure that no further damage to the culture, society and economy of the Navajo Nation occurs because of uranium mining… [and] processing, until all adverse environmental, economic and human health impacts from past uranium mining and processing have been eliminated or substantially reduced.”

* * * * *

The Navajo Nation was the fourth uranium clean-up site I visited in the West.

In Cañon City, Colo., where a uranium mill shut down last year, the state of Colorado has estimated that a clean-up will cost $43 million, but it allowed the Cotter Corporation, which is responsible, to put up less than half of that amount in surety bonds, according to the Denver Post. Unless plans change, groundwater below the site will stay contaminated, leaving many private wells unusable.

Elsewhere in Colorado, the clean-up of uranium mills after the companies went bankrupt has cost taxpayers $950 million, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. At one of these sites, in Uravan, Colo., both the mill and the town around it were dismantled, buried, and permanently fenced off. That clean-up, or eradication, cost taxpayers $120 million.

The Atlas Mill, in Moab, Utah, which closed in 1984, is one of a few sites where tailings are being relocated, because contamination from them was leaching into the Colorado River, the source of drinking water for Los Angeles and other cities. A suitable repository was located just 30 miles away—but the clean-up will still cost taxpayers a solid $1 billion.

In theory, mining companies are required to post bonds that will cover the costs of reclamation and clean-up, even if a company ceases to exist. As Virginia Uranium, Inc. (VUI), which is proposing to mine the Coles Hill deposit near Danville, puts it: “[N]o uranium-mining company can extract an ounce of ore before posting surety bonds sufficient to restore the land it will disturb; for example, Pinion Ridge in Colorado is setting aside $11 million in bonds and Homestake Grants in New Mexico $33 million.”

But those amounts are a fraction of the actual costs of reclamation projects I saw underway.

Representatives of VUI did not respond to a request for comment. But on its website, VUI notes, “There have been many advances in safety features in all sorts of mining, including uranium mining, over the past several decades… At every level, stringent health and safety regulations exist and are enforced by federal and state authorities.”

The website describes the modern design VUI has in mind for the Coles Hill plant. All water flowing through the site would be “tested and treated as needed to EPA standards.” Tailings cells would be located above the 1,000-year flood plain, lined with clay and multiple synthetic liners, in beds of impermeable rock. “Advanced leak-detection systems” would further guard against any release of contaminants.

Shuey grants that a new, state-of-the-art uranium mill would be a vast improvement over previous models. But if a uranium mill managed not to pollute groundwater, it would be the first time, he said. Of the 52 mill sites in the U.S. (of which only one, in Blanding, Utah, is currently active), all 52 have led to groundwater contamination, he said.

The City of Virginia Beach opposes extracting uranium from Coles Hill because of the possibility that an accidental release could poison its water supply. But VUI says that’s virtually impossible. On its website it states: “Based on… regulatory standards and the characteristics of the Coles Hill site, the probability of a tailings release from the Coles Hill site is effectively zero, or 1-in-10,000,000.”

In Virginia, uranium facilities might benefit from improved standards and technology, but they would also face unprecedented challenges, due to the wet and volatile climate. In the U.S., uranium has been extracted almost entirely in arid Western states. Virginia’s average annual 40+ inches of rain and frequent heavy storms — along with disarming recent phenomena including tornados, derechos, “superstorms,” and earthquakes — could make it more difficult to prevent the escape of contaminants from vast waste piles, for all time. (Or at least for 1,000 years, which is how long U.S. regulations aim to contain mill tailings. The actual half-lives of uranium and many of its decay products are unfathomably long—up to 4.5 billion years.)

Shuey explained that uranium, when left undisturbed in the ground, is fairly stationary. But when it’s brought up and exposed to air, the mineral oxidizes, going from U4+ to U6+, a version that is highly soluble in water.

* * * * *

The scientist switched gears to tell me a Navajo legend.

The story goes that when the People were entering this world, they had a choice between two yellow powders. One was life-giving corn pollen; the other, in the legend, is unspecified. Shuey said, “They could choose the way of the corn pollen, which is balance and harmony, or they could choose the way of this other yellow stuff, which is the way of disharmony, imbalance, and upsetting.” Uranium, which is ground into a yellow powder, acts that way, he said.

“When you take this stuff out of its resting place, it moves easily in the environment, especially in water, and you can’t put it back in the earth,” he said. “Now… even if it’s managed in some state-of-the-art facility, it’s still got to be managed. Anything in the nuclear fuel cycle has to be managed because it’s full of impact. Setting aside all of the risks — all of the health risks, all of the environmental risks — that management requires societal dedication, including financial resources. And it will never be put back.”


 

Rose Jenkins, a native of Madison County, Va, is traveling across the American West. Until 2012, she served as senior writer and editor at The Piedmont Environmental Council. Read more of her writing at http://www.waystohere.com/ .

 

 

Gov. McDonnell’s Uranium Mining Group: Putting the Cart Before the Horse

The quick update

In 2007, Virginia Uranium, LLC, (VUI) began lobbying hard for the General Assembly’s standing moratorium on uranium mining and milling to be lifted. The corporation has big plans to start a mining and milling operation in Pittsylvania County, and PEC and our allies have fought them every step of the way. There is simply too much at stake. Uranium mining and milling in Virginia would be an extremely dangerous experiment. In the United States, uranium has only been mined in arid regions— where low rainfall makes it more feasible to contain the radioactive and toxic mining waste. Virginia is anything but arid. 

After a Town is Buried, Controversy Still Rages

In Colorado and Virginia residents debate whether proposed uranium mills will help or hinder their economies.

To reach the place where an entire town had been dismantled and buried in a Superfund cleanup, I traveled through coils of red rock canyons—sheer cliffs that enclosed the Dolores and San Miguel Rivers in southwest Colorado. My guide, Jennifer Thurston, who directs of a mining watchdog group called INFORM Colorado, told me that the tops of these mesas are dotted with old uranium mines—mines that once fed ore to the mill at Uravan.

Rough gravel roads took us to the spot on the San Miguel River where the town of Uravan used to be, the the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and state of Colorado determined the town to be so contaminated that it was unsafe for people to live there. The town, which was home to over 600 people, was evacuated as part of a Superfund cleanup spanning 1986 to 2008. Then every structure—the mill, schools, houses, playgrounds—was torn down, shredded, and buried. Today, the site is off-limits, barricaded by barbed wire fences and yellow signs that warn of radioactive exposure.

Uravan was a company town, named for two minerals that are found together in the ore here—uranium, which is used to make nuclear fuel, and vanadium, which is used to harden steel. Because nearly every family that lived in the town worked at the mines or the mill, nearly all of the residents were struck a personal blow by the epidemic of lung cancer that took place among the miners.

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This fence prevents entry to the site of the former town of Uravan, where vast piles of uranium tailings are buried. Photo by Rose Jenkins

During the last uranium boom—roughly from the 1940s through the 1970s—miners labored in poorly ventilated tunnels that trapped radon from the radioactive ore and diesel exhaust from their machinery. In addition, cigarette smoking in the mine shafts was widespread. Many of the men who worked in these conditions died of lung disease, and others struggle with it still.
But when I asked Bill Chadd, who mined uranium for twelve years, lived in Uravan for ten, and suffers from lung disease, if he thought that a proposed new uranium mill would be good for the area, he said, “You bet.”

Over breakfast in the lobby of the Ray Motel in Naturita, Colo., near the former town of Uravan, he told me, “It would open up about 300 jobs.”

Energy Fuels Inc., has proposed to build a new mill, the Piñon Ridge Mill, less than 10 miles from Uravan. On the other side of the country, a company called Virginia Uranium, Inc., proposes to mine and mill uranium in Virginia—my home state.

Uranium has never been extracted in Virginia, but communities in the West have a long history with uranium mining. I have been researching their stories, so Virginians can learn from their experience.

In southwest Colorado I found that the people whose lives were most intertwined with the uranium industry—those who had benefited most directly from its jobs and suffered most intensely from its mistakes—were most ready to give it another go.

Other people, who live and work at a greater remove from the industry, in towns that are prospering without it, see the Piñon Ridge Mill as unacceptably risky. They consider the proposed mill an environmental and public health threat, and they also think that it could derail economic growth in the region. Thurston, who lives in Telluride, Colo., some 50 miles from the Piñon Ridge site, told me, “A uranium mill, in reality, is a radioactive waste dump. The stigma of having radioactive facilities in your community makes it more difficult to attract people.”

Southwest Colorado, where dramatic red mesas are streaked with greenish layers that contain uranium ore, played a central role in the history of nuclear development. The radium that Marie Curie used in her experiments was mined and processed just outside of Telluride. Later, at Uravan, uranium was secretly produced for use in the bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ending World War II. During the Cold War, the uranium industry boomed as the U.S. raced to stockpile nuclear weapons.

It crashed after the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, when public opinion turned against nuclear power. International treaties that cooled the nuclear arms race kept the price of uranium low. Most of the 1,200 uranium mines in the Uravan Mineral Belt (which runs through four counties in southwest Colorado and Utah) were abandoned. Uravan was obliterated, and nearby towns, like Naturita and Nucla, dwindled.

But after three decades of moribund markets for uranium, demand is up, and communities in Colorado, as in Virginia, are faced with a question: do they want the uranium industry here?

In Naturita, the answer I heard was: Yes, absolutely.

Chadd told me, “Anybody that’s working here is working out of town.” The loss of jobs in the uranium industry has caused the population here in the west end of Montrose County, to shrink by half since 1960, after it more than quadrupled between 1930 and 1960.

Sherri Ross, who works as a receptionist at The Ray Motel, said, “I think [the mill] would bring the area back considerably, and it would provide jobs and put families back into small areas where they want to be.”

The former miners and relatives of miners who had come to the motel for breakfast that morning railed against conditions in the unventilated mines that had made so many people sick—but they believe that uranium mining today, using improved standards, is reasonably safe.

Ross said, “A lot of the problem is, a lot of people in the outside world, they heard about the cancers. My dad had cancer. He died three months after the diagnosis. A lot of people they had cancers that was linked to the uranium mining… But back in the day, they didn’t have the knowledge that they’ve got now. They didn’t have the radon testing. They didn’t have the air shafts. They didn’t have OSHA. “

According to Energy Fuels Inc., the Piñon Ridge Mill would directly employ 85 people, and it would create another 200 jobs in the area by spurring renewed uranium mining activity.

Dianna Reams, the president of the Nucla-Naturita Chamber of Commerce, urged me to look around the towns to get a sense of how badly they need economic development. I saw a line of boarded store windows. I saw a burned building that no one had bothered to rebuild or tear down. I saw posters on the walls of Nucla High School, depicting its graduating classes, which were down from 60-70 seniors 40 years ago to 20 seniors in 2011.

“We love our community and we just want to live here,” Reams said. “We want to have jobs for our kids. We want to have nice schools and good parks and great tourism and fun things to do. Everybody wants that. And, certainly, we’re not willing to risk our lives to do it… We don’t view it as more of a risk than driving your car.”

*****

Right now, what stands in the way of the Piñon Ridge Mill is an environmental group based in Telluride called Sheep Mountain Alliance. In June, the group won a lawsuit that revoked the license that a Colorado agency issued to Energy Fuels Inc., based on the agency’s failure to hold formal public hearings. The company has stated that it will continue to pursue the license.

Hilary White, the director of Sheep Mountain Alliance, concedes that occupational safety for miners has improved. But, she doesn’t believe that the uranium industry can contain the vast quantities of radioactive and toxic waste products that a mill produces. The waste can contaminate water supplies, make people sick, and harm wildlife. “It’s impossible to say that you can contain something for lifetimes upon lifetimes,” she said. “Humans just don’t have that capacity.”

Thurston, with INFORM Colorado (the name is an acronym for Information Network for Responsible Mining), also based in Telluride, took me on a tour of the area to see the legacy of the last uranium boom. We saw long out-of-use mines with open, gaping tunnels and piles of waste rock left where they were dumped 40 or 50 years ago. Most of the 1,200 mines in the Uravan Mineral Belt fall into this category, Thurston said—unused but unreclaimed. At these sites, no effort has been made to contain radioactivity or return the land to a state that is safe for other uses.

Uravan, where vividly colored impoundment ponds once lined the very edge of the San Miguel River, is an exception. There, the clean-up cost taxpayers $120 million.

Thurston said that uranium companies should have to clean up existing messes before they’re allowed to move forward on new projects.

“This is an industry that has a record of absolute failure,” she said. “Yet it always comes back and says, Trust us. We’ll do it differently.”

Bringing back a potentially hazardous industry might create jobs in rural communities like Nucla and Naturita, but it could do economic damage to the larger region, according to a study commissioned by Sheep Mountain Alliance, by Power Consulting.

The rural communities, including Nucla and Naturita, that rose and fell with the uranium industry are located in the western ends of three Colorado counties—Mesa, Montrose, and San Miguel—that include the urban centers of Grand Junction, Montrose, and Telluride (once a mining center, now a resort destination). The Power study notes that, as a whole, between 1985 and 2008, while the uranium industry was in decline, these counties saw remarkable economic growth. They added over 66,000 jobs, gained almost 73,000 residents, and saw real income multiply by 2.5 times.

The study attributes this growth to “new sources of economic vitality … associated with the attractiveness of this region as a place to live, work, do business, and raise a family as well as a place to visit or live part-time.”

Among these sources, the study credits the region’s thriving tourism and recreation industry, its draw for retirees and second-home owners, and the emergence of its growing towns and cities as trade hubs. According to the study, a facility that is seen as “noxious,” like a uranium mill, could slow or reverse these trends.

Already, Thurston says, the proposal has stoked anxieties about “radioactive snow” at Telluride.

White says, “It would put Telluride immediately downwind of this radioactive waste facility. What if there was some sort of leak that was on national news? What would happen to our tourist industry?”

White also thinks that communities like Nucla and Naturita should aim for better than a boom-and-bust industry that exposes residents to hazardous materials. She lists potential alternative sources of economic development for the area: retirement communities, agriculture, greenhouses, recreation, tourism, solar energy.

But Reams told me that she finds the way outsiders offer their advice offensive. “We don’t tell them what to do with their ski hill,” she said.

She told me, “We want [uranium] because we understand it. We think we know how to keep it as safe as possible. They’re our children going in those mines. We’re not dumb and we don’t need to be taken care of or told how to do things. We think that this is a good industry for us… It’s part of our history and we think it’s good.”

*****

In Virginia, as in Colorado, residents are weighing the positive and negative economic consequences of uranium mining.

Virginia Uranium, Inc. (VUI), which is seeking to mine the Coles Hill Deposit near Danville, touts impressive figures—including the potential for over 1,000 jobs—from an economic study of its proposal written by Chmura Economics and Analytics on commission for the state.

Both advocates and opponents of uranium mining present voices from the local community to make their economic case. The VUI website includes quotes from residents who welcome the prospect of economic growth, like Fred Soyars of Danville, who says, “The Coles Hill uranium project may be our last call for prosperity. We need good jobs and a new, strong stream of tax revenue.”

A video produced by the Southern Environmental Law Center and the Piedmont Environmental Council, which oppose uranium mining in Virginia, features a farmer concerned that his pastures could be contaminated and an angler who talks about the hit local businesses would take if people stopped coming to the area to fish. In the video, Andrew Lester of the Roanoke River Basin Commission asks, "If you were the businessman or businesswoman… would you pick the community that has the potential for uranium mining pollution — or would you pick the one that doesn't?"

The City of Virginia Beach, downstream from the Coles Hill site, which is both a major city and a popular tourist destination, opposes the project because an accidental release of tailings could poison its water supply.

The Chmura study attempts to gauge potential economic costs and benefits and calculate the net impact of VUI’s mining and milling operation. It finds that the project could result in local and statewide growth that it calls “substantial and much-needed,” but qualifies this finding in a significant way.

Chmura writes: “During its projected 35 years of operations, the Coles Hill site is expected to support more than 1,000 jobs annually (direct, indirect, and induced) and have an annual net positive economic impact of approximately $135 million. This net benefit comes after subtracting for 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), which under specific circumstances, Chmura judges most likely to be minimal.” (Italics added).

What “specific circumstances”?

Chmura outlines four possible scenarios, and chooses one use to use as the baseline for its calculations. These are the four possibilities:

  1. The VUI mine and mill cause virtually no environmental damage.
  2. They cause some environmental damage, but not more than what is allowed by law.
  3. They cause environmental contamination that exceeds regulatory limits in terms of air, soil, or noise, but not water.
  4. They cause contamination that exceeds regulatory limits in multiple categories, including water.

Chmura bases its calculations on Scenario #2: contamination from the plant is kept within regulatory limits. If contamination exceeds those limits, and especially if it gets into the water, the economic outlook could be radically different. The study notes, “The risks and rewards are not balanced, and the adverse economic impact under the worst-case scenario is nearly twice as great as the corresponding positive impact in our best-case scenario.”

If either the VUI mill in Virginia or Piñon Ridge Mill in Colorado is built, it will join just one other uranium mill in operation in the United States. The Cotter mill in Canon City, Colorado shut down last year, after contaminating the groundwater for decades and leaving local wells unusable. The Atlas mill in Moab, Utah closed in 1984 and is subject to an ongoing cleanup to stop the leaching of radioactive wastes into the Colorado River. That leaves the White Mesa Mill in Blanding, Utah, where minor releases of airborne radioactivity were documented recently.

In Virginia, a climate that is dramatically wetter than that of the American Southwest and prone to intense rainfall, hurricanes, tornadoes, and earthquakes adds to the challenges of safely operating a uranium mill and storing hazardous wastes there over the long term.

The debate over uranium in Virginia is often framed as weighing the risks of contamination against the promise of economic growth. But Chmura’s analysis indicates that environmental risk and economic risk go together. The proposed uranium mine and processing plant could prove a major boon for Virginia’s economy—if nothing gets out of control.

Rose Jenkins, a native of Madison County, Va, is traveling across the American West. Until recently, she had served as senior writer and editor at the Piedmont Environmental Council. Read more of her writing at http://www.waystohere.com/ . After a Town Is Buried, Controversy Still Rages

In Colorado and Virginia residents debate whether proposed uranium mills will help or hinder their economies.

by Rose Jenkins

To reach the place where an entire town had been dismantled and buried in a Superfund cleanup, I traveled through coils of red rock canyons—sheer cliffs that enclosed the Dolores and San Miguel Rivers in southwest Colorado. My guide, Jennifer Thurston, who directs of a mining watchdog group called INFORM Colorado, told me that the tops of these mesas are dotted with old uranium mines—mines that once fed ore to the mill at Uravan.

Rough gravel roads took us to the spot on the San Miguel River where the town of Uravan used to be, the the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and state of Colorado determined the town to be so contaminated that it was unsafe for people to live there. The town, which was home to over 600 people, was evacuated as part of a Superfund cleanup spanning 1986 to 2008. Then every structure—the mill, schools, houses, playgrounds—was torn down, shredded, and buried. Today, the site is off-limits, barricaded by barbed wire fences and yellow signs that warn of radioactive exposure.

Uravan was a company town, named for two minerals that are found together in the ore here—uranium, which is used to make nuclear fuel, and vanadium, which is used to harden steel. Because nearly every family that lived in the town worked at the mines or the mill, nearly all of the residents were struck a personal blow by the epidemic of lung cancer that took place among the miners.

During the last uranium boom—roughly from the 1940s through the 1970s—miners labored in poorly ventilated tunnels that trapped radon from the radioactive ore and diesel exhaust from their machinery. In addition, cigarette smoking in the mine shafts was widespread. Many of the men who worked in these conditions died of lung disease, and others struggle with it still.
But when I asked Bill Chadd, who mined uranium for twelve years, lived in Uravan for ten, and suffers from lung disease, if he thought that a proposed new uranium mill would be good for the area, he said, “You bet.”

Over breakfast in the lobby of the Ray Motel in Naturita, Colo., near the former town of Uravan, he told me, “It would open up about 300 jobs.”

Energy Fuels Inc., has proposed to build a new mill, the Piñon Ridge Mill, less than 10 miles from Uravan. On the other side of the country, a company called Virginia Uranium, Inc., proposes to mine and mill uranium in Virginia—my home state.

Uranium has never been extracted in Virginia, but communities in the West have a long history with uranium mining. I have been researching their stories, so Virginians can learn from their experience.

In southwest Colorado I found that the people whose lives were most intertwined with the uranium industry—those who had benefited most directly from its jobs and suffered most intensely from its mistakes—were most ready to give it another go.

Other people, who live and work at a greater remove from the industry, in towns that are prospering without it, see the Piñon Ridge Mill as unacceptably risky. They consider the proposed mill an environmental and public health threat, and they also think that it could derail economic growth in the region. Thurston, who lives in Telluride, Colo., some 50 miles from the Piñon Ridge site, told me, “A uranium mill, in reality, is a radioactive waste dump. The stigma of having radioactive facilities in your community makes it more difficult to attract people.”

Southwest Colorado, where dramatic red mesas are streaked with greenish layers that contain uranium ore, played a central role in the history of nuclear development. The radium that Marie Curie used in her experiments was mined and processed just outside of Telluride. Later, at Uravan, uranium was secretly produced for use in the bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ending World War II. During the Cold War, the uranium industry boomed as the U.S. raced to stockpile nuclear weapons.

It crashed after the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, when public opinion turned against nuclear power. International treaties that cooled the nuclear arms race kept the price of uranium low. Most of the 1,200 uranium mines in the Uravan Mineral Belt (which runs through four counties in southwest Colorado and Utah) were abandoned. Uravan was obliterated, and nearby towns, like Naturita and Nucla, dwindled.

But after three decades of moribund markets for uranium, demand is up, and communities in Colorado, as in Virginia, are faced with a question: do they want the uranium industry here?

In Naturita, the answer I heard was: Yes, absolutely.

Chadd told me, “Anybody that’s working here is working out of town.” The loss of jobs in the uranium industry has caused the population here in the west end of Montrose County, to shrink by half since 1960, after it more than quadrupled between 1930 and 1960.

Sherri Ross, who works as a receptionist at The Ray Motel, said, “I think [the mill] would bring the area back considerably, and it would provide jobs and put families back into small areas where they want to be.”

The former miners and relatives of miners who had come to the motel for breakfast that morning railed against conditions in the unventilated mines that had made so many people sick—but they believe that uranium mining today, using improved standards, is reasonably safe.

Ross said, “A lot of the problem is, a lot of people in the outside world, they heard about the cancers. My dad had cancer. He died three months after the diagnosis. A lot of people they had cancers that was linked to the uranium mining… But back in the day, they didn’t have the knowledge that they’ve got now. They didn’t have the radon testing. They didn’t have the air shafts. They didn’t have OSHA. “

According to Energy Fuels Inc., the Piñon Ridge Mill would directly employ 85 people, and it would create another 200 jobs in the area by spurring renewed uranium mining activity.

Dianna Reams, the president of the Nucla-Naturita Chamber of Commerce, urged me to look around the towns to get a sense of how badly they need economic development. I saw a line of boarded store windows. I saw a burned building that no one had bothered to rebuild or tear down. I saw posters on the walls of Nucla High School, depicting its graduating classes, which were down from 60-70 seniors 40 years ago to 20 seniors in 2011.

“We love our community and we just want to live here,” Reams said. “We want to have jobs for our kids. We want to have nice schools and good parks and great tourism and fun things to do. Everybody wants that. And, certainly, we’re not willing to risk our lives to do it… We don’t view it as more of a risk than driving your car.”

*****

Right now, what stands in the way of the Piñon Ridge Mill is an environmental group based in Telluride called Sheep Mountain Alliance. In June, the group won a lawsuit that revoked the license that a Colorado agency issued to Energy Fuels Inc., based on the agency’s failure to hold formal public hearings. The company has stated that it will continue to pursue the license.

Hilary White, the director of Sheep Mountain Alliance, concedes that occupational safety for miners has improved. But, she doesn’t believe that the uranium industry can contain the vast quantities of radioactive and toxic waste products that a mill produces. The waste can contaminate water supplies, make people sick, and harm wildlife. “It’s impossible to say that you can contain something for lifetimes upon lifetimes,” she said. “Humans just don’t have that capacity.”

Thurston, with INFORM Colorado (the name is an acronym for Information Network for Responsible Mining), also based in Telluride, took me on a tour of the area to see the legacy of the last uranium boom. We saw long out-of-use mines with open, gaping tunnels and piles of waste rock left where they were dumped 40 or 50 years ago. Most of the 1,200 mines in the Uravan Mineral Belt fall into this category, Thurston said—unused but unreclaimed. At these sites, no effort has been made to contain radioactivity or return the land to a state that is safe for other uses.

Uravan, where vividly colored impoundment ponds once lined the very edge of the San Miguel River, is an exception. There, the clean-up cost taxpayers $120 million.

Thurston said that uranium companies should have to clean up existing messes before they’re allowed to move forward on new projects.

“This is an industry that has a record of absolute failure,” she said. “Yet it always comes back and says, Trust us. We’ll do it differently.”

Bringing back a potentially hazardous industry might create jobs in rural communities like Nucla and Naturita, but it could do economic damage to the larger region, according to a study commissioned by Sheep Mountain Alliance, by Power Consulting.

The rural communities, including Nucla and Naturita, that rose and fell with the uranium industry are located in the western ends of three Colorado counties—Mesa, Montrose, and San Miguel—that include the urban centers of Grand Junction, Montrose, and Telluride (once a mining center, now a resort destination). The Power study notes that, as a whole, between 1985 and 2008, while the uranium industry was in decline, these counties saw remarkable economic growth. They added over 66,000 jobs, gained almost 73,000 residents, and saw real income multiply by 2.5 times.

The study attributes this growth to “new sources of economic vitality … associated with the attractiveness of this region as a place to live, work, do business, and raise a family as well as a place to visit or live part-time.”

Among these sources, the study credits the region’s thriving tourism and recreation industry, its draw for retirees and second-home owners, and the emergence of its growing towns and cities as trade hubs. According to the study, a facility that is seen as “noxious,” like a uranium mill, could slow or reverse these trends.

Already, Thurston says, the proposal has stoked anxieties about “radioactive snow” at Telluride.

White says, “It would put Telluride immediately downwind of this radioactive waste facility. What if there was some sort of leak that was on national news? What would happen to our tourist industry?”

White also thinks that communities like Nucla and Naturita should aim for better than a boom-and-bust industry that exposes residents to hazardous materials. She lists potential alternative sources of economic development for the area: retirement communities, agriculture, greenhouses, recreation, tourism, solar energy.

But Reams told me that she finds the way outsiders offer their advice offensive. “We don’t tell them what to do with their ski hill,” she said.

She told me, “We want [uranium] because we understand it. We think we know how to keep it as safe as possible. They’re our children going in those mines. We’re not dumb and we don’t need to be taken care of or told how to do things. We think that this is a good industry for us… It’s part of our history and we think it’s good.”

*****

In Virginia, as in Colorado, residents are weighing the positive and negative economic consequences of uranium mining.

Virginia Uranium, Inc. (VUI), which is seeking to mine the Coles Hill Deposit near Danville, touts impressive figures—including the potential for over 1,000 jobs—from an economic study of its proposal written by Chmura Economics and Analytics on commission for the state.

Both advocates and opponents of uranium mining present voices from the local community to make their economic case. The VUI website includes quotes from residents who welcome the prospect of economic growth, like Fred Soyars of Danville, who says, “The Coles Hill uranium project may be our last call for prosperity. We need good jobs and a new, strong stream of tax revenue.”

A video produced by the Southern Environmental Law Center and the Piedmont Environmental Council, which oppose uranium mining in Virginia, features a farmer concerned that his pastures could be contaminated and an angler who talks about the hit local businesses would take if people stopped coming to the area to fish. In the video, Andrew Lester of the Roanoke River Basin Commission asks, "If you were the businessman or businesswoman… would you pick the community that has the potential for uranium mining pollution — or would you pick the one that doesn't?"

The City of Virginia Beach, downstream from the Coles Hill site, which is both a major city and a popular tourist destination, opposes the project because an accidental release of tailings could poison its water supply.

The Chmura study attempts to gauge potential economic costs and benefits and calculate the net impact of VUI’s mining and milling operation. It finds that the project could result in local and statewide growth that it calls “substantial and much-needed,” but qualifies this finding in a significant way.

Chmura writes: “During its projected 35 years of operations, the Coles Hill site is expected to support more than 1,000 jobs annually (direct, indirect, and induced) and have an annual net positive economic impact of approximately $135 million. This net benefit comes after subtracting for 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), which under specific circumstances, Chmura judges most likely to be minimal.” (Italics added).

What “specific circumstances”?

Chmura outlines four possible scenarios, and chooses one use to use as the baseline for its calculations. These are the four possibilities:

  1. The VUI mine and mill cause virtually no environmental damage.
  2. They cause some environmental damage, but not more than what is allowed by law.
  3. They cause environmental contamination that exceeds regulatory limits in terms of air, soil, or noise, but not water.
  4. They cause contamination that exceeds regulatory limits in multiple categories, including water.

Chmura bases its calculations on Scenario #2: contamination from the plant is kept within regulatory limits. If contamination exceeds those limits, and especially if it gets into the water, the economic outlook could be radically different. The study notes, “The risks and rewards are not balanced, and the adverse economic impact under the worst-case scenario is nearly twice as great as the corresponding positive impact in our best-case scenario.”

If either the VUI mill in Virginia or Piñon Ridge Mill in Colorado is built, it will join just one other uranium mill in operation in the United States. The Cotter mill in Canon City, Colorado shut down last year, after contaminating the groundwater for decades and leaving local wells unusable. The Atlas mill in Moab, Utah closed in 1984 and is subject to an ongoing cleanup to stop the leaching of radioactive wastes into the Colorado River. That leaves the White Mesa Mill in Blanding, Utah, where minor releases of airborne radioactivity were documented recently.

In Virginia, a climate that is dramatically wetter than that of the American Southwest and prone to intense rainfall, hurricanes, tornadoes, and earthquakes adds to the challenges of safely operating a uranium mill and storing hazardous wastes there over the long term.

The debate over uranium in Virginia is often framed as weighing the risks of contamination against the promise of economic growth. But Chmura’s analysis indicates that environmental risk and economic risk go together. The proposed uranium mine and processing plant could prove a major boon for Virginia’s economy—if nothing gets out of control.

 


Rose Jenkins, a native of Madison County, Va, is traveling across the American West. Until 2012, she served as senior writer and editor at The Piedmont Environmental Council. Read more of her writing at http://www.waystohere.com/

The Poisoned Well

What can a Superfund site in Colorado tell us about potential uranium mining and milling in Virginia?

Sharyn Cunningham and her family drank from a poisoned well for eight years. When they bought property in Cañon City, Colo., in 1994, they had their two wells tested—but just for normal water quality issues, not for radioactivity or heavy metals. They didn’t know that the groundwater below their home had been infiltrated by toxic waste from the Cotter Corporation’s uranium mill on the edge of town.

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Sharyn Cunningham. Photo by Rose Jenkins

“There were a lot of people using their wells,” she told me. “I never thought about uranium.”

I was in Cañon City on the first of a series of stops of visits to communities in the West that have experience with the uranium industry. My purpose was to inform the debate over whether to allow uranium mining and milling in my home state of Virginia. In stories like Cunningham’s, there may be important lessons learned that Virginians should take to heart.

The history of the uranium mill, or processing plant, in Cañon City can be recounted as one failure after another in containing hazardous wastes. Early on, in the 1950s, the Cotter Corporation simply dumped mine tailings—the dirt and rock remaining after concentrated “yellowcake” is extracted from uranium ore—on the ground. During heavy rains, a toxic flood washed into the neighborhoods below. In 1971, Fremont County constructed an earthen dam to stop flooding, but contaminated water seeped through, underground. Later, the company built a wall with technology to filter out contaminants, but the filter clogged. Today, water that flows downhill from the site is pumped back into impoundment ponds.

But the tailings may still be releasing unseen contaminants into the groundwater. The piles were moved into huge pits equipped with a rubber liner, in 1979. But a series of recent studies indicates that the lined pits are leaking or are likely to leak.

In 1984, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) designated the Cotter Mill site and the adjacent Lincoln Park neighborhood a Superfund site. But when Cunningham bought her home in Lincoln Park ten years later, she didn’t know that. She never thought about Cotter until 2002, she says, when the company announced a plan to import and store toxic waste from other parts of the country, starting with almost half a million tons of contaminated earth shipped out of New Jersey. In response, she helped to found the grassroots group Colorado Citizens Against Toxic Waste (CCAT). When the CCAT board met with a representative from the state health department, she learned for the first time that her well posed a health hazard.

“He said, ‘Well, nobody’s using their wells in Lincoln Park,’” Cunningham recalls. “And I raised my hand and said, ‘Um… we are.’ And he kind of freaked out.”

In the years that followed, hundreds of area residents who got sick—with cancers, bone diseases, kidney diseases, autoimmune diseases, and other problems—filed class action lawsuits. After years in court, they won settlements, although the company did not admit any fault.

Cunningham believes that her family’s health was also harmed, but she stayed out of the lawsuits—focusing instead on forcing the company to stop poisoning the ground, air, and water of Cañon City.

CCAT’s citizen activists succeeded in stopping the Cotter Corporation from importing hazardous wastes—materials so toxic that it was worth hundreds of millions of dollars for the places they came from to get rid of them.

As Cunningham describes it, elected officials assumed that public opinion would be evenly split between people who opposed the import plan on grounds of public health and people who supported it on grounds of economic development. Instead, CCAT rallied an overwhelming consensus against it. In a community of about 18,000, the organization gathered 5,000 signatures on a petition opposing the plan, including many business owners, health care workers, and educators. In 2005, the state denied the permit. CCAT went on to successfully advocate for three state laws affecting the uranium mill.

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Dan Grenard, a Lincoln Park resident, feels that the public has been left out of the plan for cleaning up the Cotter uranium mill, where tailings ponds are being filled in with earth. Photo by Rose Jenkins

One of these required the company to send impacted property owners a yearly letter informing them of the status of their wells to ensure they do not drink poisoned water in ignorance, as the Cunninghams had. Over several decades, properties with contaminated wells were connected to the town water system, but their wells still work, and people use them as they see fit.

This law, which passed in 2010, also required Cotter to clean up contaminated groundwater in order to continue processing uranium. That meant pumping the water up to a treatment plant, removing uranium and heavy metals, and then returning it to the aquifer. Instead, in 2011, the company chose to close the mill. By pushing the law through, CCAT effectively shut down the uranium mill.

When I asked Cunningham her goal now, she said, “Ideally, I want them to restore this site to what it was. They came in here and they poisoned our land. They poisoned our water. I want them to clean it up with the best technology, in the fastest way possible… I want my two wells back.”

Plans for the clean-up are underway, with a trio of state and federal agencies in charge, and opinions differ about how to handle it.

Cunningham believes that a full clean-up would involve treating the contaminated groundwater and removing the massive tailings deposits, which will remain radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years. At the eight other Colorado uranium mills that have been closed down and cleaned up, she says, the tailings were hauled away—away from population centers and water sources, to places where geologic formations will help contain the wastes.

At those eight mills, the companies went bankrupt and left the job to taxpayers—with costs totaling over $1 billion, in Colorado alone. At Cotter, which was purchased in 2000 by General Atomics, the company is responsible for the clean-up—and its preferred course of action appears to be to bury the site and leave it be.

I repeatedly contacted the Cotter Corporation and General Atomics, but did not receive a reply.

Steve Tarlton, radiation program manager with the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment, one of the three agencies managing the clean-up, told me in an email: "[C]ontaminants at Cotter are effectively contained on site. There is groundwater and soil contamination within the property that is being studied to determine the appropriate remedies.” He listed steps that have already been taken, which include connecting properties with contaminated wells to city water, removing contaminated soils, and installing barriers to prevent water migration. Because of these measures, he stated, “residents are no longer at risk.”

The citizens whom I met were skeptical of this assessment. They cite Cotter’s estimate, in a 2009 document titled “Site Conceptual Model and Corrective Measures for the Canon City Milling Facility, Colorado”, that over half a billion gallons of groundwater have been poisoned. They point to maps of water-sampling data, produced by Cotter in 2008, that show a plume of contaminated water extending nearly to the Arkansas River. And they point to a series of studies suggesting that the tailings piles could still be leaking into the aquifer.

Officially, the cleanup plan is subject to an ongoing public process, but the local activists I spoke to felt sidelined.

When Dan Grenard, a Lincoln Park resident, led me through pines and cactuses up a ridge overlooking the mill site, what we saw looked like a plan that was well underway. Where buildings and containment ponds once had spread over a vast acreage, only two small ponds remained in field of dirt. The buildings had been taken down and buried in the pits, which were steadily being filled in. “It’s like if someone says they’re going to build you a house and you get to give input on what that house is going to look like,” Grenard said. “But they take you out six weeks later and the house is 90% built.”

He concluded, “The public is there so they can say they had a public meeting.”

In Cañon City, I met a number of hard-working volunteers connected with CCAT who had educated themselves to the point of expertise on issues such as radioactivity, hydrogeology, and bureaucratic process. Lee Alter and Kay Hawklee, CCAT members who are fighting a proposal for renewed uranium mining near their homes in the rural Tallahassee Creek area, told me that regulators are often allied with the industry, leaving much of the burden on citizens to protect themselves.

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Lee Alter shows the author an abandoned open pit uranium mine located just across the road from his ranch. This mine flooded when it hit a spring, creating this pond. Alter says that Geiger counters show mild radioactivity at this site and dangerous levels of radioactivity at another abandoned, unreclaimed mine nearby. Photo by Rose Jenkins

Even within this group of activists, I found that Cunningham’s dedication earns a high level of respect. Grenard compared her to Erin Brockovich.

“I have worked 40 to 50 hours a week, for ten years, as a volunteer,” she told me. That meant sharply cutting back her work as a psychotherapist between the ages of 55 and 65 when she would have been preparing for retirement. She sees this fight as her calling. “I believe this is a purpose that landed on me,” she says.

I found Cunningham’s story powerful. But was it relevant? Maybe Cañon City was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time—in the path of the uranium industry from its sloppy early days. No one denies that the industry, historically, caused people grievous harm—but it claims it can do better now.

Patrick Wales, the project manager for Virginia Uranium, LLC, which is seeking to extract uranium near Danville, has said that his company will build "the safest uranium mine in the world.”

Virginia’s heavy rainfall and intense natural events could heighten that challenge. In the United States, uranium has typically been mined or milled in arid areas, like Cañon City, which averages just 13 inches of precipitation every year. Danville averages 45 inches—and, in the last 18 months alone, has weathered powerful storms, deadly tornadoes and a 5.8 earthquake.

A dry climate should make it easier to keep mine tailings from overflowing or seeping into rivers and groundwater. Yet, the history of the uranium industry in the West is replete with problems—such as the continuing leaching of radioactive materials into the Colorado River from the Atlas Mill in Moab, Utah, and the 1979 failure of a tailings dam at Church Rock, New Mexico, the second largest release of radioactive contamination in history, after Chernobyl.

Cunningham notes that carelessness is not a thing of the past in Cañon City, where the Cotter Corporation has amassed over 100 regulatory violations in the last 12 years. And that doesn’t mean the problems were fixed, she says, just pointed out.

Wales told me that today’s improved practices can effectively contain hazardous materials, and have done so at well-run facilities in Canada and Australia. He said, “The technology that we use today, under current regulations, with the below grade-storage and the double lined containment ponds, largely has prevented that material from entering the environment.”

He cited the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) study Uranium Mining in Virginia, which found that improved practices make the industry safer. This study states, “If uranium mining, processing, and reclamation are designed, constructed, operated and monitored according to modern international best practices, near-to-moderate term environmental effects… should be substantially reduced.”

It further notes: “Extreme natural events (e.g. hurricanes, earthquakes, intense rainfall events, drought) have the potential to lead to the release of contaminants if facilities are not designed and constructed to withstand such an event, or fail to perform as designed.”

When commissioned by the Commonwealth of Virginia, the NAS was instructed to remain neutral as to whether the state’s moratorium on uranium mining should be lifted. It carefully concluded that “there are steep hurdles to be surmounted.” Recently, one scientist who served on the study committee, Dr. Peter DeFur, went further by declaring—speaking for himself—that the challenges in Virginia are “insurmountable.”

While I am out West, I plan to visit other communities that have been affected by uranium mining. These include the Navajo Nation, which has banned uranium mining because of its disastrous prior experience. I’ve also spoken with citizens in the town of Naturita, Colo., where people once made a good living from uranium mining. Although many miners there died of cancer, due in part to conditions in the mines, the citizens that I met felt strongly that, given improved industry standards, the economic benefits outweigh the health and environmental risks.

I asked Cunningham, “Do you think uranium mining and milling can be done safely now?”

She said, “I’m going with the Navajos. They call it the yellow monster. Leave it in the ground.”

 


Rose Jenkins, a native of Madison County, Va, is traveling across the American West. Until 2012, she had served as senior writer and editor at The Piedmont Environmental Council. Read more of her writing at http://www.waystohere.com/ .

Uranium Mining: “Not the Time to Relax”

The uranium in Virginia will remain safely underground for now, although pressure is still building to overturn Virginia’s ban on mining and milling this radioactive mineral. 

Despite a massive lobbying effort by Virginia Uranium, LLC, it appears that efforts to end the ban this year lacked political support, particularly after a National Academy of Sciences study released in December confirmed that uranium mining and milling would expose Virginians to unprecedented risk. On January 20, Gov. Bob McDonnell requested that there be no effort to lift Virginia’s ban on uranium mining this year, but directed state agencies to start drafting regulations for potential uranium mining and milling.