Monday, March 16, 2009

New Section: Uranium Roundup

Given the constant stream of news surrounding Virginia Uranium Institute's proposed uranium mine in Pittsylvania County, I'm planning to start a weekly (or thereabouts) installment of uranium-related headlines to keep up with the relevant occurrences. 

For those of you who are new to this blog, I've written before about my opposition to uranium mining and the conflicts of interest on the subcommittee tasked with "studying" such mining. It's become apparent that if I tried to write a post every time something happened, I'd never write about anything else and you would all get bored. Instead, here's some of what happened on the uranium front over the past week or so:
  • Last week, the Pittsylvania County Board of Supervisors brought up the possibility of enacting a uranium mining ban within the county. This comes after a previous resolution, which required any uranium mining not result in damage to the county, passed unanimously. I don't have to tell you what a potentially huge deal this could be; legal battles anyone?
  • The Danville Register & Bee has--sort of--come out on the side of Chatham Mayor George Haley, who wants his town to adopt a less ambiguous ordinance--pro or con--regarding VUI's proposed mine at the Coles Hill site. Gretna and Hurt have already passed ordinances requiring the mine not bring harm to Pittsylvania County, which seems to reflect the general public opinion.
  • The Pittsylvania County NAACP has expressed concerns about how mining would affect water quality in the county. Apparently the exploratory drilling that occurred in recent months has led to a drastic increase in lead levels at at least one household's water well.
  • The Southside Virginia Against Uranium Mining blog (which is worth a look in its own right) posted a map today of land leased to would-be miners Marline Properties in the 1980s before the statewide moratorium on uranium was enacted. It may take a while to load the picture, but I think it's worth a look; major swaths of land were slated for uranium mining, and it would be interesting to see what role the old leases would play in any new mining.
It would seem there's a growing public consciousness of what dangers are inherent in blasting radioactive nuclear fuel out of the ground and into the environment. I would expect that to grow into a backlash over the coming months, and it encourages me--one of the most cruel things you can do to a Southside resident is promise jobs in exchange for health and safety.


Anonymous said...

Thanks Max. It's truly unsettling when one thinks about the potential ramifications of a very large open-pit uranium mine (or two, since there is the North deposit and South deposit) if the state lifts the moratorium. Thank you for helping to raise awareness since it appears lawmakers are focused more on economic benefits and less on the health & medical implications that mining AND milling could have on this area for all future generations. I don't hear anyone answering the questions of who would monitor those underground mill tailings for centuries and who is going to pay for that technology, future repairs, and how they would even begin to replace an underground liner for those tailings if that need arises.

Anonymous said...

As a geologist, a committed environmentalist, and a Southside resident, I feel (with some reservations about the reaction) that I should comment.

I've been following the uranium mining debate for some time, and for possibly the first time in my life I find myself in opposition to (if sympathetic toward) other environmentally-minded people.

Open-pit quarries in general, when well-run and regulated, are among the least environmentally-damaging mining activities. The large leases Max mentions may well include up to half of the acreage as easements, which are preserved as natural areas and cannot be developed by anyone. But mentioning the word "uranium" seems to evoke almost a panic-response in many people, and many of the concerns being expressed over the proposed mining are simply not based on a solid understanding of the geologic processes and mining practices involved. Groundwater concerns, to use just one example, are based on adverse environmental impacts that took place in a completely different environment from Virginia, in which radioactive material was introduced into new water systems. Keep in mind that the uranium deposits in Virginia are already located within the water table, and have been there for some 200 million years; nothing new is being introduced to the system. Anyone that has a well in the Danville Triassic Basin is already being exposed to the uranium in these deposits.

There is always a "not in my back yard" aspect to this kind of project, and that's quite understandable; who wants a quarry in their county? But there is an opportunity for environmentalists to use this quarry as leverage. If this deposit is so vital, why are we still knocking the tops off mountains in SW VA to get at coal? The potential energy production from a single open pit in Pittsylvania County is likely equal to the coal from large numbers mountaintop removals in Wise County, and the environmental destruction from those activities (including downstream on rivers that flow through the Piedmont) is well documented. Energy concerns shouldn't get to have it both ways.

I mentioned above that "well-run and regulated" quarries have a minimal environmental impact; I can't overemphasize the importance of proper regulation. I feel that this is where we should be focusing our efforts. We are certainly justified (after the last 8 years in particular) in being suspicious of regulatory agencies and the ability of corporations to police themselves, and these concerns are not based on speculative or inaccurate interpretations of science that are easily refuted. We should be insisting that this quarry be properly monitored and regulated--and not just a promise, but legislatively guaranteed.

For what it's worth, while I am a professional geologist and often have to interact with quarries, I have not now nor have I ever derived my income from any mining company. But, as a Southside resident, and with many of my friends and relatives living in Southside, I have no concerns whatsoever about a properly regulated uranium mine.

And, this disagreement aside, I love your blog, Max.

Max said...

Anonymous geologist,

Thank you for your thoughtful post; it's always rewarding to see a good discussion starting up.

I think you raise some very interesting points. I especially like what you said about using this proposed mine as leverage against the coal mining facilities you mention, and even I have to admit that if the choice were between a bunch of coal plants and one nuclear reactor, I would pick the reactor--though I still have major objections to nuclear power, which I will discuss later.

I basically have three big concerns about the Coles Hill site, and you touched on one of them. First, given the history of mining companies in that part of Appalachia, I have very little confidence that such a mine would be properly regulated or ethically managed. Even with state and federal regulation, the regulators can't be everywhere all the time. Whether by negligence, accident or even an honest mistake, the margin for error is razor-thin. There's also the long-term political consideration: maybe right now a mine would have spectacular regulation, but with such a long-term project, there's plenty of time for political winds to shift. Deregulate-baby-deregulate will likely become in voque yet again.

Second, I worry about the democratic legitimacy of this whole process. The subcommittee tasked with performing the study on uranium mining does not include a member from Danville or Pittsylvania County. Moreover, several members of the subcommittee have received contributions from VUI. Southside deserves better than this.

Third, there's the economic sustainability issue--even if the mine is run 100% safely and without incident, sooner or later the uranium must run out. When that happens and the mine shuts down, I worry where that would leave the mine workers and the county economy as a whole.

As an aside, I fundamentally am very wary of nuclear power. Yes, it's relatively clean in the short term (again, when well-regulated) and it produces lots of power, but the waste has to go somewhere and we are running out of places to put it. Yucca Mountain is already full and it hasn't even been completed yet, and there will inevitably be a battle over the next Yucca Mountain. Nuclear is politically a very messy option, because at every stage--mining, processing, power generation, and waste disposal--it opens up countless not-in-my-backyard problems. And again my worry is that the consequences for a mistake can be absolutely devastating.

Thanks again for your perspective, and I hope to hear from you again as the uranium issue progresses.


Anonymous said...

Interestingly, Max, my concerns are pretty much identical to your concerns; I think the difference is only in degree.

I greatly worry about proper regulation, and as you say, past history gives us no reason to be confident. I think regulation is going to improve under the Obama Interior Dept., but it has a long way to go. And even if supposed regulation is in place, that doesn't mean that we should be complacent. Everyone has to be watched, including the regulators. No small task!

I have the same concerns about the subcommittee structure, both the lack of Southside representation and the apparent conflict of interest. I think we are right to demand representation and the return of VUI donations! I would suggest, though, that the approach should be "we want a voice and an honest process". Not "we want a voice so we can stop this corrupt project!" If our ONLY goal in obtaining representation is to block the project, I think it's unlikely we'll be heard at all. We have to go in at least acknowledging the possibility that the project could happen, so that if it does we can ensure that it happens in as acceptable fashion as possible.

For example (and going back to point one), if the quarry happens anyway we could insist on monitoring independent of normal regulators; maybe with the monitors chosen by the local government and paid for out of an escrow account from the uranium proceeds. I have no idea if this is feasible or even legal, but it's the sort of thing that we might be able to do "from the inside."

I know nothing about VUI's management. Some quarry operators are SOB's that will cut any corner they can. But I have dealt with others that truly try to be good citizens, and want input from the community (as long as the input is constructive). I don't know what VUI is like, but a good relationship is at least theoretically possible.

With respect to sustainability - I'm not a mining geologist, and I haven't studied the particular deposits in any detail. In general, however, quarries are long-term operations. Even with high-yield quarries, it often takes 10 years or more just to pay off the initial capital outlay to open a pit. I would be shocked if the quarry didn't produce for decades; every indication is that the deposit is large. I was recently in a gravel quarry (admittedly a different type of operation) that has been continuously active for 94 years, and there are no plans to close it (it's not even an exceptionally large quarry). Not to say that it won't eventually close, but not many industries guarantee returns over multiple generations.

Finally, with nuclear power in general, 15 years ago I would have agreed with you. None of those concerns about nuclear power have changed. What has changed for me is the realization of the climate damage due to the use of fossil fuels. Even from a professional viewpoint, the climate forecasts are scary; it really looks like the worst-case models are the best fits for the data so far. We've got to stop using coal as fast as we possibly can. I do not consider nuclear power a long-term solution, and I only support it in conjunction with developing alternatives as quickly as possible. But the fact is, even the worst nuclear disaster is only a local disaster (not to diminish it in any way), while the impending fossil fuel disaster is global in scope. The ramifications of climate change are so severe that almost anything that moves us away from coal more quickly is worth considering, in my opinion.

-Anonoymous geologist