Virginia Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R) was correct when he said recently that the state should not lift its uranium mining ban. In the 1980s, mining and milling operations were proposed for the uranium deposit at Coles Hill, but Virginians studied the proposal and saw that its benefits were far outweighed by the potential harm. The right course for Virginia is to continue to treasure a more significant resource — the Roanoke River — over the uranium ore buried at its headwaters.
Water is the most important strategic commodity for any society, and access to a clean and safe supply is a birthright of all Virginians. Water routes took Virginia’s goods to ports before there were roads, and water powered its factories. Now water serves the needs of a booming population.
The Roanoke River supplies millions of residents in Virginia and North Carolina with drinking water. It also serves as an economic engine that provides jobs for local residents while helping to preserve their quality of life. From its headwaters to its estuaries, the Roanoke provides opportunities for sailing, kayaking, water-skiing, fishing, birding, hunting and camping. Volunteers have dedicated countless hours to promoting these opportunities, and their efforts have created a suite of recreational opportunities within a day’s drive of the entire Eastern Seaboard. In turn, these efforts have made the Roanoke River’s lakes, rivers and wildlife refuges popular tourist attractions. A study by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that the area’s refuges brought hundreds of millions of dollars per year to the economies of Virginia and North Carolina. Uranium mining puts all that at risk.
The lure of uranium is the lure of the quick buck. The danger of uranium mining is the staggering cost of cleanup in the event of a leak or accident. Spills at uranium-mining sites near Church Rock, N.M., and Gore, Okla., required significant emergency response and expensive cleanup. More than a dozen uranium-mill sites in the United States are abandoned and undergoing cleanup by the Energy Department.
Proponents say that modern techniques would allow Coles Hill to be mined safely and cleanly, but new technology and stricter regulations have not eliminated problems at other sites. Spills of toxic wastewater at a Finnish mine caused hundreds of demonstrators to call for closing a state-of-the-art operation. Inspections from Wyoming’s environmental regulators this past summer disclosed violations of basic operation and maintenance requirements that continue to dog the Smith Ranch mine. The latest technical standards and regulations did not prevent the problems in Wyoming or Finland. They cannot be expected to do so in Virginia.
And, in the end, there simply is no need to take the chance. The uranium from Coles Hill is not needed to meet the demands of the market. The Energy Department has large inventories of uranium and other material for making nuclear fuel. Selling this inventory would allow the department to recoup costs it incurs in cleaning up contaminated facilities. But the department has chosen to limit its sales of surplus uranium to keep uranium prices high, in effect creating a price-support system for mining and milling.
While legislators in Washington struggle with closing the federal budget deficit, taxpayers should be concerned that we are sitting on a surplus of mined uranium. It makes no sense to tell our seniors and others that they must suffer cuts to their benefits while we subsidize profits for international mining operations. Using taxpayer-supported uranium prices to persuade Virginians to gamble on their water supply is unconscionable. Virginians would be wise to follow the lead of Lt. Gov. Bolling and keep the ban.
The writer is a lawyer who specializes in environmental law and a professor at the Duke University School of Law.