The leaders of Virginia Uranium need to talk with the leaders of the North Carolina Granite Corporation. VA Uranium is seeking to obtain permission to mine its granite formation while NC Granite is the current operator of a granite quarry that has been in continuous operation since 1889. If you will forgive the obvious pun, that quarry is an economic bedrock that helped to make Mt Airy, NC the idyllic hometown immortalized in Andy Griffith’s Mayberry, RFD.
The sincere people in Chatham, VA who are worried about the potential effects of allowing Walter Coles and his associates to develop a uranium mine near their own small town need to make the short trip to Mt Airy, visit its amazing regional history museum, and then visit the observation area at the granite mine. That trip could be an eye-opening experience that would provide a much better understanding of the impact – both positive and negative – of living near a unique natural hard rock formation that is being beneficially developed for the use of human beings.
I’ve been writing about the Coles Hill granite deposit a few miles outside of Chatham, Virginia for several years. Like the rock located just a mile or so from downtown Mt Airy, it is a unique asset. Mt Airy’s rock has been described as some of the most uniformly beautiful granite in the world. Here is a quote from the company’s web site:
There is also a bias to White Mount Airy Granite®. We make no bones about this either, White Mount Airy Granite® is the premier white granite in the world—bar none. It is the brightest white, most uniform, most available, highest quality, and greatest value granite you will find. Only one can be the best of the best—for over 100 years, that is White Mount Airy Granite®.
The rock at Coles Hill is not as physically impressive, but it has been surveyed and determined to contain 119 million pounds of uranium. That is enough to provide fuel for all of 104 nuclear reactors in the United States for more than 2 years. Those power plants produce approximately 800 billion kilowatt hours of electricity each year, which is roughly 20% of the electricity consumption for the whole country.
If breeder or high conversion rate reactors are deployed, the uranium that is locked up inside the granite formation at Coles Hill could provide enough heat input to generate as much electricity as the entire US currently uses for about 20 years. That hard rock deposit at Coles Hill might not be a place that can supply the stone for the Arlington Memorial Bridge, but it certainly has a unique value that could provide sustained economic benefits to the local area that is blessed with its presence.
For a variety of reasons, however, the state of Virginia established a moratorium on uranium mining within just a few years after the deposit was discovered. The state said that it needed time to develop the regulatory infrastructure required to allow the mining to be done safely. The moratorium was never lifted because the regulatory research was completed at about the same time as the world price of uranium fell from $40 per pound to about $12 per pound, with occasional dips below $10 per pound.
The deposit remained quietly in place as the world changed, more CO2 was dumped into the atmosphere and more hydrocarbons were burned. By 2005-2006, the nuclear industry had used up a good portion of the inventory overhang that had caused uranium prices to be so low for so long. In addition, the market prices of competitive fuels like natural gas were soaring. Uranium prices began to rise, reaching a peak of about $147 per pound. Coincidentally, that price per pound was within a few percent of the price of a barrel of oil.
Walter Coles, his next door neighbor, some Virginian friends, and Canadian investors who understand the uranium mining business decided that it would be worthwhile to attempt to provide their valuable product to the world market. So far, they have invested close to $40 million into the effort to more fully characterize the resource, provide information to the public, support government efforts to learn more about the opportunity, and to prepare for the even more extensive and expensive process of licensing and constructing the mine.
Even though the deposit is located in an area where there is a high rate of unemployment and where several economic pillars – tobacco farming, textiles and furniture manufacturing – have all suffered, there has been a widespread effort to prevent Mr. Coles from extracting and selling the valuable material located under his property. Several members of the local community have aligned with people from as far away as Asheville, NC, Virginia Beach, VA and the northern sections of Virginia near Washington to oppose the mine and maintain the statewide moratorium on uranium mining.
They have stated that they are afraid of the effect of the mine operation on their property values and that they are worried about the health effects of the leftovers from the operation. I’ve spoken to several members of the opposition; some are quite sincerely worried about noise, traffic, and dust. They worry about their farms, their retirement homes, and their tourist focused businesses. Some believe that the local private schools will suffer because parents will be afraid to send their children to the home of a uranium mine. They say that uranium has never been mined east of the Mississippi, or in a place where there is abundant rainfall, or in a populated area.
Those concerns are legitimate, but they can be addressed by recognizing that there is nearby experience with mining granite, nearly all of which contains at least some uranium and its inevitable daughter products. Hard rock quarries have a lot in common with each other, so many of the concerns about the impacts of noise, dust, and traffic can be alleviated by finding out how other operations have mitigated those inevitable features of extracting rocks from the earth.
My recognition that Mt Airy’s quarry operation provides a close analog to a Coles Hill uranium-bearing granite deposit came by pure serendipity. Saturday, February 9, 2013 was a beautiful day in southern Virginia, so my wife and I decided it would be a good time to do some exploring in our adopted home area. After discussing several possibilities, we settled on a visit to Mt Airy, which is just a few miles south of the state line between Virginia and North Carolina. One of my colleagues had recently visited and entertained a group of us with a memorable tale of a visit to Snappy Lunch to enjoy one of its famous pork chop sandwiches. He described Mt Airy’s picturesque downtown as a place worth visiting.
When we arrived, we recognized that Mt Airy was indeed the kind of place that we love to visit. The downtown was clean, it had few, if any, vacant storefronts, and the sidewalks were pleasantly populated with people who were enjoying the unseasonably warm February day. The lady at the visitor’s center told us that the streets would be far more crowded in “the season.” There are a large number of attraction enterprises in Mt Airy that capitalize on the fame of Mayberry and Andy Griffith, but I sensed that there was more to the town than tourism.
We started strolling up the main street and quickly discovered a well-stocked outdoor store manned by people who have a first hand knowledge of the products they are selling. I’ve been in the market for new hiking boots for quite some time, but most places have a limited selection of the wide size I need. We stopped and shopped. We found a perfect fit for both of us. We made our purchase, happily contributing to the Mt Airy economy. We then ate lunch at one of the many pleasant Main Street restaurants where the waitress was a delight who kept our glasses full of freshly brewed tea.
We decided to avoid the Mayberry, RFD focused attractions and started our exploration with a visit to the regional history museum. It is a truly impressive facility, with four floors of exhibits in a well maintained historic building that quietly informed visitors that Mt Airy prospered long before Mayberry; the place is a real town, not a TV set. The museum included displays that described several economic pillars including tobacco, vineyards, other agriculture, mountain tourist hotels, distilleries, and railroads, but the enterprise that seemed to carry the town through the ups and downs was the quarry, which had been in steady operation since 1889.
My big regret from our first visit to Mt Airy was that we spent so much time in the regional history museum that we did not stop on our way out of town at the quarry to visit the observation deck and watch the mining operation. I think we’ll have to return someday very soon to learn more about what the mine has meant to the town’s development as a real hometown where good people can grow up and lead meaningful lives with secure employment.