The fate of the Coles Hill uranium deposit in Pittsylvania County, Va., has been a source of contention between business leaders, environmentalists, politicians and even researchers since its discovery in 1978.
But even after years of debate, the issue remains unresolved. Companies like Virginia Uranium, Inc., that want to mine Coles Hill, say mining is an economic investment, while environmental advocates say that mining poses an environmental threat and a public health hazard.
“It’s an economic game-changer for Southside Virginia,” said Patrick Wales, a spokesman for Virginia Uranium. “(Several socioeconomic studies) demonstrate that this would be a tremendous economic benefit to not only Southside Virginia, but for the entire commonwealth.”
Opening a mine at the Coles Hill site, which holds 119 million pounds of uranium ore, would employ more than 320 people with an average salary of $65,000, Wales said. In addition, up to 1,000 jobs could be created, including indirect consultants, suppliers and contractors.
“It gets down to creating jobs; it gets down to helping the economy down here,” Wales said. “It’s a very necessary thing. We need this material to safely operate our nuclear reactors around the country. We’re dangerously dependent on foreign countries for the fuel for those reactors.”
However, Andrew Lester, the executive director of the Roanoke River Basin Association, says the negative effects of uranium mining outweigh the economic benefits.
“They started considering mining uranium near Chatham, Va., which is nearly dead in the center of the Roanoke River System,” Lester said. “We realized that it could be a detriment not only to cities along the river system, but also to places like Virginia Beach, which use our water supply.”
Such a large issue hasn’t gone unexamined. Since 1982, a moratorium — or temporary ban — on uranium mining has been in place to give researchers time to examine the effects of mining on health and the environment. Over the years, researchers on both sides of the argument have studied the deposit at Coles Hill.
Robert Bodnar, a geosciences professor at Virginia Tech, has spent nearly five years studying the uranium deposit at Coles Hill — an interdisciplinary research undertaking involving biology, hydrology, soil and environmental science, as well as civil engineering.
“The Coles Hill deposit is very unique in a couple of ways,” Bodnar said. “It’s an ore deposit that I and many other people have the opportunity to work on and study before they start mining it, and that’s very unusual.”
Being able to study the Coles Hill deposit, Bodnar said, is an opportunity to examine the deposit before the mine is built — the deposit in its natural form.
“We have an opportunity to see what the surface above a mineral deposit is like, what the effects the mineral supply has on the local water supply, on the biota, on the air quality and everything,” he said. “This is called baseline characterization. In other words, it’s characterizing the natural environment around an ore deposit before any mining takes place.”
Bodnar and his team of researchers have made a couple of findings supporting uranium mining.
“The question we have to ask is, ‘Can the uranium at Coles Hill be mined with minimal and acceptable risk to the public heath and the environment?’” Bodnar said. “The answer is absolutely yes. It’s being done in France, in Canada, in the western United States, Australia and other places around the world.”
But Robert Moran, a researcher who has spent more than 39 years studying geology and water quality around the world and at various uranium mines, says there are some risks to mining.
According to his assessment of the Coles Hill site, the undiluted tailing liquids resulting from mining could contain 1,160 to 1,460 times more than the Safe Drinking Water Act standard for uranium.
“I’ve worked at a lot of uranium sites, so what I am saying is not theoretical; it’s not textbook stuff. This all happens,” Moran said.
Additionally, he said the mines create more toxins than just uranium, posing environmental problems.
“The mineralized rock contains much more than just uranium; it contains many other toxic compounds,” he said. “All of these can be released into the environment, contaminating surface and groundwater. And they frequently do.”