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.”