Uranium mine debate pits residents in quaint town of Chatham, Va.

December 27, 2012

Not much has changed in the nearly 140 years since the town of Chatham, Va., was incorporated. Depending on whom you ask, that is either a good or a bad thing.

Still standing are two of the community’s pillars, the preparatory academies Chatham Hall and Hargrave Military Academy, both founded near the turn of the 20th century. Long gone are the textile mills and tobacco farms that served as the backbone of the region’s economy — and the jobs that came with them.

But life in the seat of the commonwealth’s largest county could change drastically next year. In the coming session, the Virginia General Assembly is expected to consider lifting a 30-year moratorium on uranium mining permits that some say would clear the way for the first uranium mine on the East Coast.

The lode, with an estimated value of $7 billion, is said to be the largest undeveloped deposit in the country and among the largest in the world. It is buried just beyond Chatham’s idyllic downtown.

Supporters say the mine would be a much-needed economic boon to Chatham and southern Virginia, which has yet to recover from the loss of its shuttered industries. But critics say the financial gain is not worth the stigma or potential environmental risks that could derail fledgling signs of success and progress in the area or taint the town’s charm, found in its bed-and-breakfasts, rolling hills, retro Main Street, steepled churches, and historic courthouse and town hall.

Residents of Chatham (population 1,350) fall on both sides of the debate, and the question of whether a uranium mine is good for the town, county and region has divided town leaders, garden club members, neighbors, business owners and longtime friends.

“I have great friends who feel it’s going to be the resolution to everything we’re facing,” said Amanda Wydner, a Chatham native who moved back five years ago and is opposed to the mine. “It’s not as if we can’t coexist, but there’s a lot of underlying negative energy that has infiltrated everything we do here. When we step outside of our homes, when we go to church. Every day. Every week.”

In some ways, the division is tangible. Even along the same street, signs urge the legislature to “Keep the Ban” or tell critics to “Stop Whining. Start Mining.”

Many simply don’t want to discuss the mine with their neighbors, preferring to avoid confrontation in favor of getting along. Some who have chosen a side have been passionate, and people on both sides say they have felt hostility from those with opposing opinions.

Chris Dunlap said he has been shocked at the behavior of those he refers to as “The Antis.”

“There is a vehement group that has a get-in-your-face type of attitude if you mention any type of support for uranium mining. You get with an ‘Anti’ person, you’re going to be confronted.”

Families have not been immune to the conflict. Galen Motley, a former farmer who supports the mine, said he and his brother are on opposite sides.

“He’s red-hot against it, and actually, I’m red-hot for it,” Motley said. “We haven’t come to blows, but he’s standing his ground, and I’m standing mine. When we see one another and talk to one another, we make sure we don’t bring it up.”

The tension surprises Walter Coles. The Chatham native grew up on the family farm, known as Coles Hill. As a young man, he worked the land with his father and got a job at a local furniture company.

Vietnam took him away from Chatham and Coles Hill for more than 30 years. He saw the world as a military and Foreign Service officer before returning in 2000. In his absence, his father died, and a 119 million-pound uranium deposit was found on the family’s property.

The furniture company he hoped to one day return to work for had gone out of business, but Coles continued in the family business, cattle farming. With demand for uranium waning, Coles said he initially had no interest in pulling it out of the ground.

That changed in 2006. With the price of uranium rebounding, Coles received visitors from around the world who were interested in buying Coles Hill to open a mine. He declined the offers, thinking himself a better steward of the land.

A year later, he founded Virginia Uranium. He notes that its employees are local and proudly shows off photos of the company’s interns.

“I hope that as this thing moves along, we’ll come together as a community,” Coles said. “There are going to be those out there that never support us. But I think the majority will see this as a very fruitful endeavor that will be the engine of change in Pittsylvania County.”

Ben Davenport fears the opposite will happen. The influential businessman organized the Alliance for Progress in Southern Virginia, a group of about 150 small businesses opposed to the uranium mine. Davenport said he doesn’t have hard feelings against the investors, many of whom he has known since childhood.

He cites uncertainty and the possible negative connotation of being near a uranium mine as reasons why it is a bad idea for an area that is struggling to recover from a loss of jobs and population.

“If this takes off, we’re going to flip,” Davenport said. “We’re not going to be a quaint, little town anymore. We’re going to be the epicenter of a uranium mine.”

Coles said the past five years have been challenging, but he doesn’t regret his decision and is invested in making the mine a reality — especially for his employees.

“If I had it to do over again, I’d do it exactly the same way,” he said. “Some nights, you don’t sleep as well as you should. All of these employees . . . they’ve stood by us. If we aren’t successful, they don’t have a job. We’re all in it together.”

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