Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The Battle of Coles Hill

Last night was the first skirmish in what will undoubtedly become known as the Battle of Coles Hill. Chatham residents turned out in the hundreds for a community forum on uranium mining at a site just outside town, which is apparently the largest untapped uranium deposit in America. There's a lot to cover here, so I'll get right to it.

The Virginia Coal & Energy Commission's subcommittee on uranium mining held the event in Chatham High School's auditorium, which was apparently filled to capacity. This quote from the Roanoke Times article is an incredibly disturbing one:
From the start, subcommittee chairman Del. Lee Ware, R-Powhatan County, emphasized that the Southside Virginia gathering was intended to solicit recommendations from the public about what a study of uranium mining should examine. It was not, he said, a forum about whether the study or the mining should proceed at all.
So here we have an elected official, who ostensibly derives his power from the consent of the governed, telling Virginia citizens what they're allowed to discuss at a meeting that they have funded with their tax dollars. Don't tell us not to pursue this mining plan, because you can only talk about what we should ask in the study. Brilliant. Unsurprisingly, some reacted harshly to these constraints:
Jack Dunavant, chairman of Southside Concerned Citizens, began by questioning whether the Coal and Energy Commission or its subcommittee could be objective, given that a few commission members had received political contributions from Virginia Uranium. Dunavant similarly questioned the involvement of a center at Virginia Tech that he said would have a vested interested in the mining going forward.

Ware's attempt to redirect Dunavant's comments to the meeting's stated purpose failed. A member of the crowd shouted, "You tell them, Jack!"
Yes, Jack, you tell 'em. Southside Concerned Citizens have been very critical of this whole enterprise from the start, and any time politicians try to set guidelines for citizens' speech, a tongue-lashing should be the least of their worries. 

A few attendants said that if the mining could be done safely (about as likely as Elvis brokering a peace deal between Israel and Hamas), the uranium mine could be a huge economic boost to the area--to the tune of $10 billion worth of ore, according to Virginia Uranium. This is what makes VU and the subcommittee's actions so vile. People in Southside are so desperate for economic relief that some will accept any abuse just to have work, and they'll fall for any sweet talk they hear from a company like Virginia Uranium. 

This is not rocket science--we don't need a study to show that uranium is radioactive and incredibly dangerous. As the article points out, processing it on-site would be even more damaging than the mining itself. Not only would there be contamination of the immediate area, but waste would almost certainly make its way into the surrounding countryside and even downstream into North Carolina. From the Southside Concerned Citizens blog, let's take a look at some of Coles Hill's flooding history. Here's some footage from 1996's Hurricane Fran:

Imagine if those waters had contained tons of uranium ore--chances are good that we would still be cleaning up the mess. 

Toward the end of the article, Del. Ware notes that the mining could continue for 30 to 40 years. Okay, what next? Even if the mine brings prosperity and contamination is kept to a minimum, what happens to the mine workers after 40 years of uranium exposure? Who's going to pay their medical bills when they develop exotic forms of cancer? Moreover, what happens when the mine closes and their long-time miners are suddenly without work? How will that affect the local economy? My guess is that Chatham will be right back where it started, except with a generation of sick miners and a contaminated local ecosystem. 

The Battle of Coles Hill has just started, and I'm betting that we'll be seeing it unfold for a long time. I think Jack Dunavant's promise to fight mining "till the last man falls" will prove prophetic.

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