Radioactive Rivers

Beneath the rolling landscapes of Culpeper, Fauquier, Madison and Orange are deposits of the radioactive mineral uranium — potential mine sites. In the 1980s, companies filed mining leases on thousands of acres of land in these counties, as well as in southwest Virginia, with an interest in extracting the uranium, which can be processed into nuclear fuel.

Because uranium mining poses severe dangers to public health and the environment, PEC fought to prevent it, helping to secure a statewide moratorium on uranium mining in 1982. This ban is still in effect. But a Canadian-backed company called Virginia Uranium, Inc. is now pushing to mine a large deposit in southwest Virginia.

They are advocating to end the moratorium, exposing communities throughout our state to unprecedented risk.

Nowhere in the United States has uranium been mined or milled under humid, high-rainfall conditions like those in Virginia. Even at arid sites in the West, where it is more feasible to contain toxic and radioactive water from mining and milling operations, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has found that tailings from uranium ore have contaminated groundwater in almost every case.

In Virginia, extreme rainfall events can exceed 20 inches in 24 hours. Can we really expect to control the runoff from hundreds or thousands of acres of piled mine tailings, through all kinds of storm events — and to control it essentially forever, due to the long half-life of the radioactive materials?

Water supplies at risk

If left alone, the uranium deposits in Virginia are generally harmless to people. But the process of mining and milling uranium involves bringing huge amounts of radioactive rock to the surface, grinding it to a sand-like consistency, treating it with chemicals, and exposing it to the elements — a process that can introduce radioactive and otherwise toxic substances into rivers and groundwater.

Uranium mine sites are left with enormous quantities of waste rock, called tailings, since only two to four pounds of concentrated uranium ore, or “yellow cake,” can be obtained from every ton of extracted rock. At the Coles Hill site near Danville, which is the focus of the current push for uranium mining, piles of tailings that could be 100 feet deep would extend over hundreds of acres. Tailings contain 85% of the original radioactivity and remain radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years.

Dr. Doug Brugge, of the Tufts School of Medicine, who testified to Congress in 2007 about the harm caused to Navajo communities near uranium mines in the West, described uranium ore as “a toxic brew of numerous hazardous materials.” Among its dangerous ingredients, he listed 1) radon, which causes lung cancer, 2) uranium, which causes kidney damage and birth defects, 3) radium, which causes bone cancer, leukemia, and other cancers; and 4) arsenic, which causes lung and skin cancer, neurotoxicity, and skin diseases.

According to the EPA, people can be harmed by uranium mine wastes through various “exposure pathways”. If the tailings are misused as construction materials — which has occurred in other places — people can be exposed to contaminated air in affected buildings. Contaminants can also enter the atmosphere on the wind, mixing with the air we breathe. Near tailings piles, people can be exposed to gamma radiation. Finally, wind, water or leaching can carry particles from the tailings into groundwater and surface water. An EPA report states, “Water is perhaps the most significant means of dispersal of uranium and related… [radioactive materials] in the environment from mines and mine wastes….Uranium is very soluble in acidic and alkaline waters and can be transported easily from a mine site.”

“So lets see,” says Naomi Hodge-Muse, the head of the NAACP chapter in Martinsville, Virginia. “I got this pile of uranium tailings one hundred feet high, sitting on the banks of the Bannister River. A hurricane or a tornado comes through, or a catastrophic rain event comes through. The tailings are washed into the Bannister River, which feeds Lake Kerr, which feeds Buggs Island, which feeds Virginia Beach and the Raleigh-Durham area.” Similarly, in the Piedmont, uranium mining could contaminate water supplies for both local and downstream communities, including northern Virginia and Fredericksburg.

The City of Virginia Beach, which draws its water from Lake Gaston, downstream of the Coles Hill deposit, commissioned a study modeling the consequences if a containment dam at the proposed mine should fail. The study found that, in that event:

  • Radioactivity in the city’s drinking water source would rise to 10 to 20 times the regulatory safe limit.
  • Radioactive materials could take between a few months and two years to flush downstream from Lake Gaston.
  • Plants and sediments in the Kerr Reservoir, upstream of Lake Gaston, would serve as a long-term trap for radioactivity, which could re-suspend in the water during high flows.

Because of the risks posed by such an event, in May, American Rivers listed the Roanoke River in southern Virginia, which flows into Albemarle Sound and enters the ocean at North Carolina’s Outer Banks, as one of the most endangered rivers in America.

Who gains? Who loses?

“Everything else being even, which one would you pick, if you were the businessman or businesswoman?” asks Andrew Lester of the Roanoke River Basin Association. “Would you pick the community that has the potential for uranium mining pollution — or would you pick the one that doesn’t?”

Virginia Uranium, Inc. portrays tapping the vast deposit near Danville as an economic gain — but many people see uranium mining as a threat that could devastate existing industries. In a short video called Saving a River’s Legacy, which PEC co-produced with the Southern Environmental Law Center, people near the Coles Hill mine site talk about what they stand to lose — their health, their homes, and their livelihoods.

A town manager talks about how river outfitters already face a stigma against paddling “that uranium river.” A farmer is concerned that radioactive particles could get into his hay and from there into the livestock of the neighbors he supplies. A mother wants to know who would send their children to the area’s esteemed private boarding schools if there’s a uranium mine down the road. People already find that they can’t sell property near this potential source of radioactive waste.

Ed Jenkins, a fisherman, talks about what will happen if a popular fishing lake is deserted: “The people who have gas stations, restaurants — everything is affected. It’s going to be all the way down the line,” he says. If pollution, or the stigma of the mine, move downstream or into other parts of the state, the economic impacts will spread too.

Clearly, Virginia Uranium, Inc. has a great deal to gain. The Coles Hill deposit is thought to contain enough uranium to power all of the nuclear plants in America for two years, and the worth of this deposit is estimated in billions — although global demand for nuclear fuel is in flux as the world responds to the catastrophe at Japan’s Fukashima Daiichi plant.

And what is the value of safe water flowing in Virginia’s rivers?

A push to end the ban this year

Four years ago, mining speculators convinced state lawmakers to study the possibility of ending the ban on uranium mining. Since then, PEC has been forwarding data, research and expert advice to the National Research Council, which is conducting a study on potential health and environmental risks. Throughout this process, it has been evident that the research and science on the risks of uranium mining are woefully insufficient, and have barely advanced since the 1980’s. Although the studies will not be complete until December of 2011, Virginia Uranium, Inc. has already stated that it is seeking to end Virginia’s ban on uranium mining during the 2012 General Assembly session, next winter.

PEC has asked backers of uranium mining to identify five places where it has been done safely, in comparable climates. They have answered with one place: uranium has been mined under humid conditions in France.

But a recent report by the Commission for Independent Research and Information on Radioactivity (CRIIRAD) in France found: “At all the French uranium mines where it made radiological surveys, the CRIIRAD laboratory discovered situations of environmental contamination and a lack of proper protection of the inhabitants against health risks due to ionizing radiation.” The report further stated that downstream from former uranium mines, sediments, aquatic plants and riverbanks “have such a level of contamination that they deserve in many cases the terminology: ‘radioactive waste’.”

We don’t want the soils and plants of Virginia to be classifiable as radioactive waste. In the coming year, we will face a major push to open up Virginia to uranium mining, and we need to push back, getting citizens, businesses and communities across the state to send a message to our lawmakers: The risks of uranium mining here are too high. Keep the moratorium in place, to keep Virginians safe.

Extensive resources on uranium mining in Virginia, including links to the source documents referenced in this article, are available at