Uranium mining in Virginia

Written by: Dan Radmacher
January 19, 2012

“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 public, and the environment.”

–  Report by the National Academies of Science on uranium mining in Virginia

The Virginia General Assembly requested the recently released study by the National Academies of Science to help lawmakers decide whether it would be wise to lift the state’s nearly 30-year moratorium on uranium mining as proposed by a company that wants to mine a deposit in Pittsylvania County.

Dissect the study’s conclusion and translate it into plain language, and you get this: Uranium mining poses grave long-term threats to human health and the environment that could be partially mitigated by effective regulations.

There’s one very large problem with that: In the history of mining in America, there are very few examples of truly effective regulations – even when extreme potentials for danger are well known.

In 1972, a coal slurry damn at the head of Buffalo Creek failed. The rush of slurry down the hollow destroyed thousands of homes and killed 125 people. It was a horrific disaster that left scars that linger to this day.

Twenty-nine years later, in the fall of 2000, another slurry impoundment – this one in Martin County, Ky. – failed. There were no deaths, but the spill of 300 million gallons of slurry polluted hundreds of miles of streams and contaminated the water supply of thousands of residents.

In 2008, an impoundment holding more than a billion gallons of coal fly ash slurry failed, covering more than $300 acres. According to some estimates, that massive spill will cost nearly $1 billion to clean up.

Miner health and safety laws have improved drastically over the years, but mining is still an incredibly dangerous job. Regulation of even well-established risks has been far from ideal.

Black lung is a disease caused by inhaling coal dust. Regulations aimed at curbing this killer were remarkably effective – at first. Black lung cases decline by 90 percent since the early 1970s when strict federal regulations were put in place.

But in recent years, as some mining companies have become better at skirting those regulations, the number and severity of cases have risen dramatically. Autopsies of the 29 victims of the Upper Big Branch Mining disaster revealed that most of the miners had black lung, even young miners who had only been working since the regulations were in effect.

There are countless other examples of the failure of the best-intentioned regulations to actually work as enforced.

Much of what we do at Appalachian Mountain Advocates is aimed at ensuring that mining regulations live up to their promise as much as possible. It’s a difficult job that as often involves taking action against regulators as the mining industry.

The damage done by coal mining is difficult and expensive to undo. The damage that could be caused by uranium mining in Virginia would be far more difficult to mitigate – if mitigation is even possible.

As the report warned, the waste left over from uranium mining and processing, called tailings, remains extremely hazardous for thousands of years. Keeping tailings contained for that length of time would be even more difficult in Virginia – which experiences frequent storms that produce significant rainfall.

Most uranium mining in the United States is conducted in arid, largely unpopulated areas of the country. Mining in Virginia’s far wetter climate in close proximity to significant populations poses far greater hazards.

“Natural events such as hurricanes, earthquakes, intense rainfall, or drought could lead to the release of contaminants if facilities are not designed and constructed to withstand such events, or if they fail to perform as designed,” the report said.

Imagine the Buffalo Creek or Martin County disasters exponentially magnified by the impact of radiation and you begin to see the stakes.

Especially in the current political atmosphere in which regulations are judged mostly by their fiscal impact on business as opposed to how they protect the public, it would be folly to trust that a rigorous enough regulatory scheme would be developed – and enforced – to protect the citizens of Virginia from the catastrophic risks this mining would entail.

Radmacher, former editorial page editor of The Roanoke Times, is communications director for Appalachian Mountain Advocates (www.appalmad.org). Versions of this commentary appeared first in The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot and The Roanoke Times.

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