Thursday, August 6, 2009

Who will protect Virginia from uranium mining?

A cogent argument against mining Virginia uranium and an invitation to every Virginian to help stop it.

The Virginian-Pilot

August 2, 2009

Sunday Forum

by Shireen Parsons

URANIUM MINING has never been done safely anywhere in the world. It cannot be done safely. Logically, that should end this discussion, but it will not, because a few individuals, shielded from liability behind Virginia Uranium Inc. — a U.S. corporation wholly owned by Canadian corporations — would reap huge profits from mining and milling uranium on more than 2,000 acres in rural Pittsylvania County .

The Coles Hill mine would be merely the first mine in eastern Virginia, as our entire Piedmont is strewn with uranium deposits, and Virginia Uranium’s corporate mandate is to explore and develop them. If, as it surely will, the legislature lifts the moratorium, the Piedmont would become a uranium mining corridor, just as Eastern Kentucky, Southern West Virginia and Southwest Virginia are coal mining corridors.

As planned, the Coles Hill uranium mine would cover an area equal to 55 square city blocks and would be 800 feet deep. Through the blasting, extracting and crushing of uranium-bearing rock, all open-pit mines and their waste piles release into the environment heavy metals, including arsenic, lead and mercury, and radioactive materials.

The radioactive contaminants persist in the environment anywhere from hundreds of thousands of years to 4 billion years. They are taken up and retained by plants and animals, and they become part of the food chain forever. In animals and humans, the radioactive toxins cause lung, kidney and liver damage, cancers, leukemias and genetic mutations. In mammals, these contaminants are passed on to future generations in utero and via breast milk.

Once released into the environment, the heavy metals and radioactive contaminants travel great distances. Leached into ground and surface water in Pittsylvania County , they would contaminate the Roanoke River watershed to Virginia Beach , North Carolina ’s Albemarle Sound and the Atlantic Ocean . The wind-borne particulates would travel thousands of miles — every way the wind blows — in a few days.

Virginia Uranium’s public relations team tells us that, this time, uranium mining would be done safely, because the mining and milling of uranium in Virginia would be according to a regulatory program developed by the Virginia Department of Mining, Minerals and Energy (DMME).

But monitoring and oversight by our regulatory agencies are inadequate to nonexistent. Since the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was created in 1970, one-third of Americans live in areas with unhealthy ozone levels. Forty percent of our rivers, lakes and tributaries aren’t safe for swimming or fishing. Deforestation, excessive use of pesticides and fertilizers — and a 60 percent increase in the amount of refuse generated in the past 25 years — have further contaminated the soil and water.

Virginia's DMME presides over one of the most devastating mineral extraction processes in the world — mountaintop- removal coal mining, which, in the Appalachian coal states, has razed hundreds of thousands of acres of once-forested mountains, buried thousands of miles of streams under the rubble and destroyed hundreds of coalfield communities. This is a legal activity permitted by the EPA and DMME. Can we rationally expect regulatory agencies to protect us from the catastrophic effects of uranium mining in Virginia?

Those who would profit from uranium mining in Virginia say it would be an economic boon, with jobs and money pouring into the economically depressed Piedmont region. Virginia Uranium says miners would make $68,000 a year in a county where the 2000 median household income was $35,000, the unemployment rate was 9.4 percent and 12 percent of the population lived below the poverty line.

What the corporate spin fails to mention, however, is that hard-rock mining requires skilled labor, and that experienced miners would be imported from other states to earn those salaries and risk their health and lives. And that, wherever hard-rock mining occurs, surrounding communities become ghost towns and regional economies implode. The economic rewards are enjoyed only by the corporate owners and officers.

In Virginia ’s Piedmont , as in all regions cursed with hard-rock mining, the blasting, heavy truck traffic, environmental contamination and impacts to human health would cause real property values to evaporate. Local businesses would shut down, and the regional economy would collapse outward in every direction. The Banister River , a source of Virginia Beach ’s water, is less than a mile from the Coles Hill mine site, and there is absolutely no doubt that the Banister would be contaminated.

The relevant question, then, is who decides what Virginia communities look like, how safe they are, what quality of life they enjoy? Who decides whether the Virginia Piedmont and beyond will be sacrificed for a uranium mining corporation’s profits? Is it We, the People, or is it a handful of corporate executives, aided and abetted by the state legislature and regulatory agencies?

An ever-increasing number of citizens in Pittsylvania County and beyond, understanding the catastrophic effects uranium mining would wreak upon their communities and future generations, declare that they will not consent to this corporate assault, and that they will exercise their inherent local governing authority to enact binding local laws that will protect and preserve the health, safety and well-being of their communities and the ecosystem upon which all life depends.

Like Virginia Beach , the Town of Halifax is downstream from the planned uranium mine in Pittsylvania County . In February 2008, the Halifax Town Council voted unanimously to enact the Halifax Corporate Mining, Bodily Trespass and Community Self-Government Ordinance, drafted at the council’s request by the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, a Pennsylvania- based nonprofit law firm. The ordinance asserts the town’s inherent local governing authority bans

mining within the town and criminalizes chemical and radioactive bodily trespass.

Halifax Town Council member Jack Dunavant said of the decision, “This is an historic vote. We, the people, intend to protect our health and environment from corporate assault. It’s time to invoke the Constitution and acknowledge the power of the people to protect our own destiny and end this era of corporate greed and pollution.”

Citizens and elected officials of every community downstream and/or downwind from the planned Pittsylvania County mine site would do well to follow Halifax ’s lead and exert their inherent governing authority to protect themselves.

Shireen Parsons is the Virginia organizer for the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund in Christiansburg.

We regret that the Virginian Pilot does not publish all of its Opinion online. We have no link to the VP as source. The editorial was circulated by the author; we are privileged to publish it here.

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