For many farmers in the rolling foothills of the Blue Ridge, the offer would have been irresistible: $2 million in royalties for the mineral geologists say probably lies just under their dairy pastures.
But the promise of sudden wealth was not enough for Bill and Sandra Speiden.
The mineral the prospectors are seeking here, and across much of Virginia's Piedmont, is uranium. And the Speidens are convinced that mining uranium here in the heart of Virginia's horse country carries too high a risk for a region that long has placed a premium on its unspoiled and undeveloped countryside.
"The bottom line is, we feel that we are stewards of the land and feel very strongly that we should leave it better than the way we found it," Sandra Speiden says.
To the surprise of state officials committed to bringing industry to rural Virginia, the Speidens are not alone. They and scores of others have mounted a vocal drive against the proposed mining that has already reached the state legislature. A mining committee is threatening to seek restrictions on an industry that has yet to produce its first ounce of radioactive fuel in the state.
Similar campaigns have led to moratoriums on uranium mining in New Jersey and Vermont, and the Speidens say that their goal, too, is enactment of a seven-year ban in their state, to give officials time to answer questions about the safety of producing radioactive fuels.
The concern over uranium mining has been heightened here in recent days by an announcement by state officials that companies other than the one that offered the Speidens $2 million in royalties are seeking mining rights in Virginia. The officials won't name the other companies.
Marline Uranium Corp., the company whose identity is known, has leased about 55,000 acres in the state and has been drilling near Danville in southern Virginia. Some 15,000 acres of the land that Marline, a subsidiary of the New York-based Marline Oil Corp., is exploring is located in Orange, Culpeper, Fauquier and Madison counties to the north, where the current protest is centered.
Marline executives, anxious to find additional uranium, contend that the fears of the Speidens and the 500 members of the protesting Piedmont Environmental Council are exaggerated.
"We have to separate valid concern from induced hysteria," agrees Virginia State Geologist Robert Milici, who supports the exploration efforts.
Opponents insist that their concerns are real, and say they come from farmers who have seen large-scale uranium mines destroy prime agricultural lands in the West. They speak of dying livestock, radioactive and heavy-metal pollution of streambeds and rich farmland, depletion of water tables, and the rising risk of lung cancer, leukemia and genetic deformities.
It is not the actual extraction of uranium ore that worries the critics as much as it is the refining operations that they say any mining would bring to the area. Opponents of the mining say the refining would create a risk of exposure to radioactive materials, and the farmers add that the process would consume so much water that their lands would be ruined.
"I had a lot of questions," Bill Speiden says. "I questioned what would happen if they dried up or contaminated my water wells. They said, 'No problem, we'll bring you water.' Well, there's no way they'll truck in enough water . . . . That's beyond reason. It would be 10,000 to 15,000 gallons a day. Plus, they can mine within 200 yards of my house; who's going to drink my milk with all that radioactivity hanging around? We started with completely open minds. But the more we didn't get adequate answers the more we worked on our own."
Orange Mayor James Cortada agrees.
"The problem is that you can produce as many scientists who say there is a problem as those who say there isn't a problem," he says. "There are a lot of uncertainties."
Milici, however, says any mining is at least five years away and there is no reason not to press the current exploration efforts. "First we should look to see if there is a deposit in Virginia."
There are no health problems unique to uranium mining, says the Environmental Protection Agency's Stan Lichtman, who is helping to develop federal regulations that will govern disposal of mill tailings, the radioactive material that is left after uranium refining.
"Certainly there are hazards" with mill tailings, he said. "That's why Congress asked us to study it." Radioactivity from ore left over after the uranium has been refined can cause cancer in miners, he said. In addition, there is some problem with leakage of radioactive water from a refinery into existing groundwater sources.
The Speidens say this would not worry them if they believed that present mining laws contained adequate safeguards. A trip to Colorado and Utah left them unconvinced that it would be safe.
"The federal laws are geared for out West, not in Virginia where it is heavily populated," says Mayor Cortada. "There is no Virginia protection. It's never been done here."
Virginia may be about to change that. A subcommittee of the Virginia Coal and Energy Commission will hold hearings Wednesday in Chatham on the issue of the environmental and health aspects of uranium mining.
State Sen. Frederick Boucher of Abington, a subcommittee member, says it is unlikely that the panel will be able to meet its Dec. 31 deadline for reporting its findings to the legislature. Boucher said, "I suspect one recommendation will be extending for one year.".
Marline officials say they are confident that mining can be conducted safely in Virginia.
"Certainly there are concerns with respect to uranium mining and milling, says Richard Englehart, a Marline consultant. " . . . People have legitimate concerns because of past operations in the West. But new projects can be designed so as to avoid serious environmental and radiological problems. It is not black and white."