On Wednesday, Jan 6, 2015, the Lake Gaston Association (LGA) monthly meeting featured a presentation from Tom Leahy, director of the Virginia Beach Public Utilities Department. The announced topic was an update on uranium mining and coal ash control. I saw an opportunity to combine some exploration of Virginia backroads with the chance to meet some new people who might be interested in learning more about uranium mining and nuclear energy.
Perspective on health effects of worst case contamination
It might be best to lead off with a little perspective for the people who attended the meeting and did not receive this from the presenter.
The most important question asked during the Q&A session came from a gentleman sitting next to me. He asked for the bottom line – what did the numbers and the model outcome described really mean to him as a lakefront property owner? Another person from the back of the room forcefully indicated that she only wanted to know the worst case scenario because that is what she uses to establish her positions on issues.
So let’s go with that. I’ll provide more details about the model assumptions and their validity below, but the worst case shown by Mr. Leahy indicated that Lake Gaston might experience up to two years in which the water in the lake could be contaminated with a mixture of uranium, radium and thorium with a peak total activity level of perhaps 120 picocuries per liter. He stated that was way above the EPA’s maximum contaminant level (MCL) for drinking water of 5 pCi/L for combined radium 226/228.
Aside: That MCL is based on keeping annual exposure from drinking water to less than 4 mrem/year for someone who uses that water as their only water source for a year. End Aside.
Eventually, the contamination would settle out and join mercury, arsenic and other contaminants at the bottom of the lake.
Here is the perspective part. According the long term studies of more than 4,400 radium dial watch painters in the U.S. there were no radium related malignancies [pg. 13] in any worker who ingested a total of less than 60 microcuries of radium. Nearly all of the workers who ingested radium were women.
If a person drank three liters of water contaminated with 120 picocuries of radium every day, it would take them more than 160,000 days (456 years) to ingest 60 microcuries of radium.
Of course, people don’t drink water straight out of a lake without some treatment, they don’t live for 456 years, and the contaminants, even in the worst case, only stay in the lake water for less than 2 years.
If I was a lakefront home owner worried about my health, the value of my property, and my family’s ability to enjoy the benefits of living on a beautiful recreational paradise like Lake Gaston, I would spend a lot more time thinking about ways to combat Lyngbya wollei than seeking to maintain a legal prohibition on applying for the permits that would be required to mine uranium on a plantation more than 60 miles away.
Mr. Leahy’s organization received direction the Virginia Beach council to determine the possible effects of a uranium mine at the Coles Hill site, which is approximately equidistant between Chatham and Gretna Virginia. As a result, he commissioned a model that could be used to predict the possible effects of failures of the tailings confinement cells.
The primary assumption for the model is that one containment cell fails catastrophically and delivers 1/3 of its contents into the Lake Kerr/Lake Gaston system. The presumption comes as a result of imagining what might happen if the site experienced the kind of rainfall event that occurred in Nelson County, Virginia during Hurricane Camille. That event dropped more than 30 inches of rain over a 24 hour period in a mountainous region of the state.
Mr. Leahy and one of the audience members spent a considerable amount of time describing that famous event, which was graphically depicted in a book titled Roar of the Heavens. Mr. Leahy strongly recommended that anyone thinking about accepting uranium mining in Virginia find and read a copy of that book. He also told the LGA president that he would be happy to send him a copy of the book that could be passed around.
The model was then run to show how the mine tailings would be distributed in the lake and to predict the concentrations of radioactive elements in the water. There were two limiting scenarios, one in which the catastrophic rainfall event was followed by a long dry spell equal to an actual period of time in Virginia’s meteorological history and one in which the catastrophic rainfall event was followed by a lengthy wet period, also based on historical records.
The dry period led to the highest concentrations with the peak of about 120 picocuries/liter mentioned above. The wet period resulted in much lower peak concentrations; as Mr. Leahy explained, “Dilution can be the solution.”
One of the things that was glossed over was the fact that Coles Hill is several tens of miles from the mountainous region of the state; it is in the Piedmont area with gently rolling hills. It is not vulnerable to flash flooding. As far as I could tell, the model also assumes that there is little settling or material deposition in the 50 or so miles worth of winding creeks and rivers between Coles Hill and the lake system.
Economic and political arguments
Mr. Leahy also spent a fair amount of time describing the size of the deposit, the historical price of uranium, the sources of uranium fueling U.S. nuclear power plants, and the resulting overall value of the Coles Hill deposit. It didn’t surprise me to note that he chose a low estimate of the size of the resource (60 million pounds) and a low estimate of the market price of uranium ($16-$50 per pound) to indicate a total value of between $1-$3 Billion. Virginia Uranium literature uses 119 million pounds and about $60 per pound over the life of the deposit to indicate a total value of ~$7 billion.
He mentioned at least four times that he was not antinuclear and that he recognized that we had to get electricity from somewhere. However, his message was clearly aimed at convincing the audience that it would be better for uranium to come from somewhere else. He did not mention that a large portion of the known U.S. uranium resources have been put off limits because they are remotely close to the Grand Canyon and he did not mention that more than 50% of U.S. uranium is currently coming from either Russia or Kazakhstan.
Leahy’s presentation described VUI’s failed attempt to sue the state in federal court based on a preemption argument. The tone during that portion of the presentation indicated that the action was a desperate attempt to perform an end run around the political process.
He mentioned the still on going suit based on the argument that the state’s prohibition on uranium mining constitutes an uncompensated “taking” of private property for public goals. He reminded the audience that he was not a lawyer and then made the claim that courts normally consider property to be taken if all possible uses are prevented. That is not true under the recently passed amendment to the Virginia Commonwealth Constitution.
Questions and answers
During the Q&A, I probably overstepped my role as a guest, but I asked Mr. Leahy several questions. One of them was to wonder if he and his organization believed — if the assumed catastrophic rainfall event occurred — that contamination of the lake system to 120 picocuries/liter would be the most dangerous thing entering the lake. I pointed out that such an event would likely fill the lakes with many other contaminants of concern, like petroleum, agricultural chemicals, automobiles, etc.
I also tried to put the EPA’s MCL selection into perspective by pointing out that it tries to limit additional radiation exposure to 4 mrem/year in a world where average background is already greater than 300 mrem/year.
Finally, I tried to point out that the model assumes that no actions were taken before or after the catastrophic rainfall event to slow or mitigate the potential effects of the assumed confinement cell failure. Mr. Leahy said the model assumes nothing is done because there wouldn’t be enough time and transportation infrastructure might be severely damaged.
There were several quite rational questions and suggestions from the rest of the attendees. One gentleman even mentioned the fact that recent studies are showing that low levels of radiation are actually good for people, though he did not use the term “hormesis.”
At the end, Mr. Leahy defended his position by saying that the public fear of the possible risk was the real basis for working to keep uranium mining illegal. As is often the case, he did not seem to be self aware enough to understand how presentations like his contribute to fear and trembling instead of contributing to understanding and acceptance.
He also mentioned that his organization has invested more than $1 million in its model.
As advertised, he also spent some time talking about coal ash concerns and the recent spill into the Dan River. Others at the meeting might have received a different impression, but my take away was that he was quite reassuring about the impact of the spill and the fact that effective actions were being taken to limit the potential of occurance and the extend of consequences for future events.
When I apologized to the president of the LGA for perhaps asking too many questions, he assured me that he welcomed them. He thanked me for taking the time to come to the meeting and to provide a different perspective based on deep knowledge. He also mentioned that his organization had once hosted representatives of Virginia Uranium, but they had not done a very good job in answering questions or alleviating concerns.
PS: I thoroughly enjoyed chatting with a number of the LGA members both before and after the meeting. At one point, there were four ex-Navy guys (including me) sharing tales about boats, planes and ships.