Friday, August 7, 2009

Sen. Creigh Deeds Talks Sense on Uranium Mining

Map courtesy of the Piedmont Environmental Council

Original Author:

Norfolk blogger Vivian Paige had the opportunity to talk one-on-one with Creigh Deeds yesterday. At the request of a friend, she was able to ask Sen. Deeds about the issue of uranium mining. Here's her notes from the exchange:
I asked about uranium mining, a topic that I'm not too familiar with. Fortunately for me, Deeds is.

He mentioned that he practiced law in Danville in the early to mid 1980s and became quite knowledgeable about the issue during that time. Deeds said that energy independence is a part of our national security so he believes in a comprehensive approach, and nothing should be taken off the table. He said, though, that he is not convinced that we have the technology to make such mining safe.

Deeds said, when the issue came up in committee, he asked two questions, one he knew the answer to and the other he didn't. The questions were:

1. What about the terrain in Pittslyvania County has changed?
2. What about the science has changed?

The answer to question #1, which Deeds already knew, was nothing. The terrain is such that the mining may very well contaminate the groundwater and not just in Pittsylvania County. The problem could very well extend beyond, down to Hampton Roads.

As for #2, he would like to see a study done by the National Academy of Sciences. Such a study has been authorized but so far, the NAS has balked at doing it. They want the state to pay for it - as of now, the private sector would pay for it - and they want the request to come from the Commonwealth, as opposed to a General Assembly committee.

The other issue is that of radioactive waste. Deeds was quite concerned about this, saying that radioactivity lasts forever, and even if the technology exists to clean it up - which he was very skeptical of this being the case - the stigma of having radioactive waste in an area may be too much to overcome.

Unless the technology exists to make uranium mining safe, I think I understood Deeds' position to be that he would not support it.

As noted by the Southern Environmental Law Center:
Uranium occurs naturally in the ground, but when exposed to air and water, radiation is released into the environment. Virtually all uranium mining in the U.S. has occurred in the arid, sparsely populated regions of the West. In these areas and other parts of the world, uranium extraction and processing have caused serious problems, such as the contamination of groundwater and surface water and increased cancer risk for workers and the public.

There is no precedent for large-scale uranium mining in eastern states such as Virginia, where the population density puts more people at risk and where a wetter climate increases the chance of radiation contaminating streams and groundwater.

Virginia has no regulations for uranium mining, and the federal government has virtually no experience regulating the activity in a wet climate.

Because the proposed uranium pit is located upstream from Virginia Beach's water supply at Lake Gaston, the City Council of Virginia has unanimously voted in Resolution to oppose uranium mining.

"Thomas Leahy, Director of Public Utilities for the City of Virginia Beach, has two degrees in chemical engineering and has worked in water for years", writes the Appomattox Area News, July 24, 2009.

In an Virginian-Pilot op-ed dated June 13, 2009, Mike Cohen, a contract administrator with Northrop Grumman Shipbuilding stated, "Indeed, the premise that our water supply is in danger reflects an ignorance of the water chemistry and material characteristics of uranium and its related products, which make such long-distance transport virtually impossible."

In a published response, Mr. Leahy stated, "Uranium mill tailings are uranium ore that has been crushed and pulverized into very fine sand and clay-like particles. Except for the radioactivity and toxic metals content, they are little different from the common sediments that are transported by rainfall and runoff downstream into Kerr Reservoir, through Lake Gaston, and through the Gaston pipeline every day."

"The average annual erosion rate for the upper Roanoke River Basin is 11,000 cubic feet of sediment per square mile of watershed. This is a volume of sediment about the size of two Mount Trashmores each year - all eroded and transported downstream by rainfall and runoff. Even the uranium mining industry has never suggested that rainfall and runoff would not effectively transport mill tailings downstream. Instead, they maintain that they can confine the tailings indefinitely, in sophisticated landfills that will withstand probable maximum precipitation (PMP) storm events."

The Appomattox Area News further points out that Mount Trashmore Park is 165 acres, 60 feet high, over 800 feet long. "The Coles Hill mine alone would generate 30 million cubic yards of mill tailings, roughly the volume of 20 Mount Trashmores. The problem, outside of the volume increase created by the mining and milling, is that the Coles Hill sediment will remain radioactive for more than 300,000 years", they write.

Mr. Leahy feels that any statewide study that is not site specific, such as the one proposed to use in a debate on lifting the statewide moratorium on uranium mining, is "insufficient to tackle site-specific issues such as Coles Hill and the responsibility to the public water supply in Virginia Beach".

On May 21 this year, the Virginia Commission on Coal and Energy approved a study on the proposed uranium mining project to be conducted by the U.S. National Research Council, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences. It is expected to cost $1.5 million and last about 18 months. This study is not site-specific and is rather statewide study generally taking on the issue of uranium mining throughout Virginia.

It also remains unclear how the work will be funded. For as Sen. Deeds' has pointed out, NAS is insisting that it be state funded and directed by the entire General Assembly. And that is to be expected considering as the SELC points out, "Virginia has no regulations for uranium mining, and the federal government has virtually no experience regulating the activity in a wet climate". Serious issues means serious study means serious intent.

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