Patrick Wales, project manager for Virginia Uranium, speaks during a panel discussion on uranium mining in the state at the University of Richmond last month. You can expect to see a lot more discussion of this in Richmond in the coming months. (Steve Helber/AP)

Uranium mining is actually banned in Virginia right now. But next month, the General Assembly is going to start considering lifting that ban because of some uranium deposits in southern Virginia which could bring big money to, well, the uranium mine owners. In anticipation of that, the board of Fairfax Water last month ordered up an $85,000 study into what that all means for Northern Virginia.

One member of the water board, Burton J. Rubin, thinks the study is a ridiculous idea and a waste of money. No one knows if there’s any uranium anywhere near here, and an $85,000 study sure isn’t going to find out.

Rubin is angry that “$85,000 of public money has now gone out the door for a consultant to study what amounts to an elephant attack on the peanut factory.”

But the rest of the water board feels like it makes sense to start preparing for the possibility, if the mining moratorium is lifted, of any impact on the watersheds of Northern Virginia, board spokeswoman Debra Bianchi said. Fairfax Water provides the water for about 1.7 million people in Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties and the city of Alexandria.

The issue arises out of Pittsylvania County, on the Virginia-North Carolina border, on a farm called Coles Hill owned by Walter Coles. There is a giant body of uranium ore in Coles Hill, and Coles has formed a company called Virginia Uranium Inc. to try to extract it.

But in the 1980s, when this uranium was first discovered, there were no rules or regulations on how to safely extract uranium, which has radioactive properties and a half-life of just 4.5 billion years. So the state imposed a moratorium on uranium mining until regulations could be drawn up, the price of uranium subsequently declined, and folks lost interest.

Now, the price of uranium has risen, and so has interest in Coles Hill, which may have North American’s largest uranium deposit. And Virginia Uranium has been drilling exploratory holes on Coles Hill, while lining up political supporters such as Gov. Bob McDonnell to endorse proper regulations and lifting the moratorium.

Environmentalists naturally have concerns about the impact of mining, and the release of radioactive elements, so this shapes up to be an interesting issue, and soon. Supporters note that jobs, tax revenues and valuable uranium could emerge from Coles Hill. If the moratorium were lifted, Virginia Uranium and any other firm would have to obtain permits from the state and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

But does this have anything to do with Northern Virginia?

A couple of geology experts I spoke to said it simply isn’t known whether there is any uranium around here. Basically, you have to do the costly, time-consuming work of drilling into the earth to locate and confirm any significant uranium deposits. That hasn’t been done here. Yet.

“As far as we know right now,” said William L. Lassetter, manager of economic geology for the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy, “the deposit at Coles Hill is the only known economically viable uranium deposit in the state. And the process of identifying a minable deposit is quite a bit from determining whether there’s just a simple occurrence.”

Fairfax Water thought they better get ready in case someone starts drilling around here, Bianchi said.

“There are uranium mining sites,” she said, “that have been identified to be within the Occoquan and Potomac watersheds. We need to be proactive on what impact the mining might have.” (CLARIFICATION: Bianchi was referring to sites which have leases on them for uranium mining exploration, not for actual mining itself.)

Bianchi said the water board decided, “Let’s get ahead of it. If the moratorium is lifted, what our position is on lifting that ban.”

Rubin said the “reason for doing the study is totally invalid. This money is not being spent for the public welfare, it’s being spent for the agency bureaucracy,” so they are prepared for any blow back from environmental groups. He said the study won’t, and can’t, determine if there’s any uranium around here, but will review existing maps and regulations and potential impact of mining on water supplies.

Was $85,000 enough to get outraged about? “In today’s environment, you take care of the pennies,” Rubin said, “and the dollars will take care of themselves.”

The study is due to be presented to the water board later this month.