Ore Mining Debate in VA

Thursday, December 22, 2011 @ 11:12 AM gHale

Virginia must overcome “steep hurdles” before it can ensure anyone can safely extract and process a rich deposit of the radioactive ore, a new report said.

That was one of the results in the 290-page National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report expected to guide the 2012 General Assembly on whether or not it ends a 30-year ban on uranium mining. The report does not recommend whether the state should lift the ban or have it remain in place, but it makes it clear the state must address a number of environmental and public safety issues before mining can occur.

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The report points to concerns raised by opponents of uranium mining, who have argued the East Coast’s wet, hurricane-prone climate is a risky environment for mining uranium and milling, or separating the radioactive ore from rock.

Full-scale uranium mining has never occurred on the East Coast, except as a byproduct of other mining.

Virginia Uranium Inc. has proposed mining a 119-million-pound deposit in Pittsylvania County, near the North Carolina border. Called the Coles Hill deposit, it is the largest deposit in the U.S. and the seventh largest in the world.

They would end up processing the uranium into yellowcake used to power nuclear power reactors. The U.S. now imports more than 90 percent of its nuclear fuel.

If Virginia decided to end the ban, the NAS study said a muscular regulatory climate would have to be in place to ensure public and worker safety and to protect the environment.

“Significant potential environmental risks are associated with extreme natural events and failures in management practices,” the report said. “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.”

The NAS report squarely places the burden on the state to construct a regulatory process that protects the public and the environment.

“If the Commonwealth of Virginia rescinds the existing moratorium on uranium mining, there are steep hurdles to be surmounted before mining and/or processing could be established within a regulatory environment that is appropriately protective of the health and safety of workers,” the report said.

Virginia Uranium, which has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars lobbying legislators, has said it can mine the deposit safely and will create an economic bonanza for Southside Virginia, which has struggled economically amid the decline of tobacco and textiles.

Two studies released in recent weeks have supported Virginia Uranium’s rosy economic projections, but have also raised the prospect of potential environmental risks.

Opponents have argued that mining and milling would threaten water supplies if a catastrophic weather event occurred, scattering radioactive tailings into waters that are sources of public water supplies as far away as Hampton Roads, nearly 200 miles away. Tailings are the waste product of milling the ore.

The Committee on Uranium Mining in Virginia conducted the $1.4 million NAS study, financed by Virginia Uranium.

Among its key findings:
• If the state lifted the ban, uranium mining and processing are unlikely to begin for at least five to eight years. “This period of time should be used to build a robust regulatory and management culture focused on safety and citizen involvement,” the study said.
• Extreme natural events, including earthquakes, need to undergo consideration when assessing the suitability the Southside site of the uranium mining operation. Virginia suffered a magnitude 5.8 earthquake in August.
• While Coles Hill is a known economically viable deposit in Virginia, “significant uranium occurrences” may be in the Blue Ridge and Piedmont areas. Critics have said lifting the ban would open the entire state to uranium mining.

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