The gently rolling hills southwest of Warrenton are rich enough to help make Fauquier County the fourth-biggest corn producer in Virginia. But deep under the furrows may lie a far richer bounty -- uranium.
While many would say the hills are far more likely to be rearranged for housing subdivisions, Washington-based Marine Uranium Corp. has decided to play a hunch and explore for the valuable mineral.
The company has leased uranium rights on about 38,000 acres in Fauquier and other countries to the south, all the way to the North Carolina border. Company officials say they plan to spend $1.5 million on leases and other efforts to find out if there's enough uranium in Virginia to justify mining.
"Most geologists think finding uranium in the East is a fairly tale," said Marline vice president Royston C. Hughes. "It's never been done. But if you're right and you're the only guy there, you score a coup."
Most of Marline's leases (about 32,000 acres' worth) are in Pittsylvania County, Va., at the North Carolina border. But the company, a subsidiary of Marline Oil Corp. of New York, has also leased about 5,000 acres in Fauquier and nearby Orange, Culpeper and Madison counties.
Among the Fauquier landowners who have leased uranium rights to Marline are retired general William T. and Ruth O'Keefe Meredith, who live on a 100-acre farm 10 miles south of Warrenton. "We're not paying any mind to it," Mrs. Meredith said. "If they find uranium, we'll all be happy."
In exchange for uranium rights, the Merediths, like other landowners, got $5 an acre upon signing the lease, with a promise of similar small payments annually. The money won't start flowing until there is a uranium strike. Then there would be royalties of 7 percent, under the terms of the contract.
While most landowners have agreed to sign up, a few have said no. Among those who declined was Lloyd Hofer, a retired Continental Baking distributing center manager, who owns 77 acres. "I have misgivings," he said, though he's not exactly sure why. "I've been around here too long to say it's good for the area."
The Piedmont Environmental Council, a 500-member, Warrenton-based citizens group, recently scheduled public meetings in a nine-county area of central Virginia to help make landowners aware of concerns about uranium mining and drilling.
"There's an awful lot that isn't known" about the impact of such operations on the area, said council president Chaplin B. Barnes yesterday. The public sessions, which Marline officials have agreed to attend, will cover the possibility of ground water contamination, air pollution and waste problems and other topics.
Barnes said forign land investors, who control substantial holdings in the area, are among those approached by Marline for leases.
According to Marline's Hughes, it could be 10 years before operation get underway if there is enough uranium to mine. He said mining "would involve a very modest opening of the ground. We're not talking about extensive destruction of whole hillsides."
Uranium can be mined either by stripping the top of the land or by underground drilling. Hughes said any mining in Virginia would probably involve "open pits." But he said federal regulations would require restoration of any mined land.
With the nuclear power industry in the United States still trying to recover from the Three Mile Island accident, the markets for uranium have tumbled. The mineral, which in an enriched form is used as the fuel in nuclear reactors (as well as in weapons) has fallen in price from about $45 a pound to about $30, Hughes said.
But he said Marline is undeterred. "The other industrial countries are going full steam ahead with nuclear power," he said. "In 20 years, oil and gas will be gone, and students of energy feel coal and nuclear power will be critical to our energy needs."
All the same, Hughes acknowledges that its chances of finding enough uranium worth mining in Virginia are a longshot. But he adds quickly, "Uranium explorers are by nature high rollers."