What can Chatham, VA learn from Mt Airy, NC?

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.

About Rod Adams

19 Responses to “What can Chatham, VA learn from Mt Airy, NC?”

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  1. Engineer-Poet says:

    To be fair, quarrying granite doesn’t involve chemical processes such as required to extract uranium from bulk rock.  Acid spills have caused trouble in other places, and the condition and disposition of the tailings are a matter of at least local concern.

  2. Daniel says:

    Here are some comments from Rod :

    …. to oppose the mine and maintain the statewide moratorium on uranium mining.
    and
    … investors who understand the uranium mining business decided that it would be worthwhile to attempt to provide their valuable product to the world market.

    I was on the sideline of this debate. Not unlike the Virginia nuclear industry.

    Disappointing ? Dam right !

    Here from Andrea Jennetta, publisher of the uranium trade journal Fuel Cycle Week.

    The overwhelming silence of Virginia’s thriving nuclear industry. Just in case you didn’t know, the commonwealth is home to four nuclear power stations, a nuclear fuel processing plant, two nuclear plant design organizations and the U.S. nuclear Navy. Without uranium, none of them can operate.

    Yet none of them — Dominion, Babcock & Wilcox, AREVA and the zillion defense contractors that service the U.S. Navy’s seven nuclear aircraft carriers and six nuclear submarines — has stepped forward to publicly state its support for lifting the moratorium or even stated for the record that uranium can be, and currently is, mined safely.

    Instead of defending our incredible safety record or correcting the shameless, ignorant propaganda of the anit-nuclear folks and so-called “environmentalists,” the nuclear industry hides its head in the sand, preferring to go along to get along, worried that somehow we’ll lose our political chits and alienate our shareholders if we dare to speak up for ourselves.

    And since nature abhors a vacuum, the lunatics, liars and crazies have filled the void, grabbing the big headlines and successfully infected otherwise rational, reasonable people — and the politicians they vote for — with fear and radiophobia.

    You see, the nuclear industry is its own worst enemy. If we lose the fight to lift the moratorium on uranium mining, we will have no one to blame but ourselves, and our silence will have confirmed every myth. Thanks, friends.

  3. James Greenidge says:

    After seeing the huge parts of the tunnel boring machine being used for the NYC water tunnel, it can’t be that much of a leap to imagine almost fully automated mining by similar specialized devices that work deep and quiet and never see light of day nor create ugly cavities known as “quarries.” I’m sure such can be done and would make uranium mining far more palatable to communities, but is unlikely because of massive union protests — and being of two-minds on this. I don’t like people denied jobs either. This is why I’d grudgingly prefer that coal and gas just be used to power vehicles and nuclear as a mainstay electrical provider.

    James Greenidge
    Queens NY

  4. Daniel says:

    State of the Union tonight. North Korea has just tested a nuclear weapon slightly smaller than Hiroshima.

    Well, we all know that there is only one way to make mental association with nuclear for the Democratic party.

    I can’t wait.

    • Daniel says:

      So I was right ! Nuclear has only been associated to weapons.

      And for energy, we have wind and solar all over again for the next 4 years. Plus Obama is planning 15 manufacturing hubs. Those will require energy, baseload energy. And we all know howe solar and wind will fare. So Obama will install 20 times as much as we need and call it a success.

      What a nightmare.

  5. Daniel says:

    Dr James Conca, usually pro nuclear, had this to say on Obama’s State of the Union vis-à-vis energy:

    All in all, the State of Our Energy Union does look strong.

  6. Brian Mays says:

    With no more elections in his future and only his legacy to protect, President Obama decides to double down on solar and wind:

    Four years ago, other countries dominated the clean energy market and the jobs that came with it. We’ve begun to change that. Last year, wind energy added nearly half of all new power capacity in America. So let’s generate even more. Solar energy gets cheaper by the year — so let’s drive costs down even further. As long as countries like China keep going all-in on clean energy, so must we.

    Of course, “solar energy gets cheaper by the year” when its failures (e.g., Solyndra) continue to be paid for by my tax dollars. Why doesn’t the President mention the 1,100 jobs that came and then went with Solyndra’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy?

    Any mention of nuclear? … Bueller? … Bueller? …

    When it comes to energy, President Obama’s SOTUA isn’t all that different than a “Beyond Petroleum” commercial:

    After years of talking about it, we are finally poised to control our own energy future. We produce more oil at home than we have in 15 years. We have doubled the distance our cars will go on a gallon of gas, and the amount of renewable energy we generate from sources like wind and solar — with tens of thousands of good, American jobs to show for it. We produce more natural gas than ever before — and nearly everyone’s energy bill is lower because of it. And over the last four years, our emissions of the dangerous carbon pollution that threatens our planet have actually fallen.

    Elections have consequences, folks.

    • Daniel says:

      @ Brian,

      Imagine. Dr Chu was in the bunker in case anything happened in Congress. He would have then become president of the USA.

      Yeah baby. Solar and wind !

      I question this decision by Obama. Here is a guy that is on his way out and he is being setup to potenitally become president of the US. Small risk, huge impact.

      I don’t think it was a smart choice.

  7. John S. Frick says:

    Rod,
    Excellent article as usual. You have a gift. Keep up the good work!

    • Daniel says:

      @ John,

      I say Rod has stamina and energy out of the ordinary. Only a man of passion can achieve what he does.

      This guy deserve a slot on CNN.

  8. James Greenidge says:

    Where’s the Sierra Club and Wilderness Society on all the lovely shorelines and forest and hillsides that have to be razed and leveled to be topped by monstrous noisy eyesore windmills and all the thousands of acres of pristine deserts and ecology that will be marred and despoiled by solar farms — which are also easy pickings for terrorist sabotage?

    James Greenidge
    Queens NY

  9. Deborah Dix says:

    Did I miss something in your story, what would Chatham learn from a Gravel Pit in NC?

    • Rod Adams says:

      Deborah – the quarry in Mount Airy is a granite quarry, not a gravel pit. The uranium deposit in Chatham is a granite deposit. Nearly all granite has some uranium and uranium daughter products like radon and radium. The primary difference between the deposit in Mt Airy and the one in Chatham is that the Mt Airy deposit is larger, with a lower concentration of uranium.

      Both deposits require similar types of mining activity to extract the rock, though there are different processing steps after the rock has been extracted.

      In both cases, a long lasting mining operation that cannot be relocated offers a “rock” on which to build a vibrant economy that provides good jobs so that young people do not have to leave their home town in order to prosper.

  10. k patrick says:

    So does Mt Airy have a milling facility too? The noise and dust generated by a crusher would be bad enough, but Coles Hill would also have the stench of leaching chemicals. I am not convinced a box or two of baking soda would do the trick as VUI would try to say. If this requires an alkaline solution, we are talking thousands of gallons of lye. Yes, that raises quite a stink and would be ruinous to groundwater if escaped. Would whatever leaching agent hasten to erode these 60 mil plastic liners guaranteed for eternal storage of tailings? Is there any technical data available?

    Seems like you could be grateful for your coup on untold public dollars to advance your nuke business without trying to keep shoving this mine project up Pittsylvania’s butt. We have no nationally known “brand” like Mayberry to fuel a tourist frenzy like Mt Airy, and the influx of miners would probably be shopping and living in Danville, an incorporated city. VUI and Danville get the boon and as usual, Northern Pittsy gets the slag.

    We actually already have businesses here, feel free to come on down and spend some of your money. Like the hundreds of jobs B&W is supposed to be creating, there are no certified miners here waiting, just as y’all will have to hire a bunch of non local workers to get welders and machinists. American colleges produce tons of MBAs, physical labor is anathema to today’s crop of young folks, and the degree of mathematical proficiency required to program robotic milling machines will discourage most of the local youth from even attempting to gain a machinist certificate. Really.

    Too bad Walter Coles wasted $40 mil on foolishness instead of engendering goodwill among the local citizens, promulgating businesses in the charming town of Chatham and buying out his detractors. Instead he wasted it on bribing legislators (a fickle bunch) and hiring propagandists to paint concerned locals as clowns, (did she get canned after that Heritage Foundation debacle?). When and if uranium prices soar and reach a price it would be feasible to mine here, he will still face the same objectors, but more of them. It never pays to be ugly and dismissive of the concerns of locals, and VUI has gone out of it’s way to make permanent enemies in the county, it’s arrogance will not be forgotten.

    • Rod Adams says:

      Ms Patrick

      Sometimes it can be quite disturbing to try to converse with you. I am not used to people being quite so aggressive and dismissive all at the same time.

      Did you read my post about my visit to Mt Airy, which was a pleasant, prosperous town long before it became Mayberry? In fact, that was part of the point of the post; that granite quarry that I mentioned, which is just one mile from downtown, has been in continuous operation for more than 100 years. It has been providing good, steady employment for skilled rock cutters and granite product fabricators. The people holding those jobs are part of the diverse economy of the town and part of the reason that Andy Griffith liked growing up in Mt Airy. He liked it well enough that he decided that it would make a good set for a family entertainment TV show.

      The initial rock cutters were immigrants because there were no local workers with the necessary skill set. The immigrants became locals. They also shared their knowledge and developed the local work force. In some cases the great grandchildren of the early rock cutters may now be working behind some of the design screens associated with modern granite products.

      I have visited Chatham.

      http://atomicinsights.com/2012/06/virginia-uranium-waiting-patiently-to-create-325-family-wage-jobs-in-southside.html

      My wife and I love visiting small towns, traveling on backroads and getting a feel for the people in various locations. While in Chatham we drove down Main Street; we saw that there are some beautiful homes, but the downtown area seemed to be at least half full of vacant buildings. We tried to find a place to eat lunch; all we could find was a sandwich shop. That is not an option for me; I cannot eat bread. My impression was that Chatham was a place where most technically inclined students will take the first bus out of town because there do not seem to be many suitable opportunities.

      Please do not sell your local students short; learning how to operate mining equipment is no more difficult than learning to operate construction machinery, learning how to fly a flight simulator, studying a football playbook or running a fantasy football league. The key to teaching students is to respect them and to help them understand the value of the information you are asking them to learn.

      I’ve spent a few years in front of a classroom; teaching is still one of my favorite tasks. It’s no surprise that there aren’t any certified miners in Chatham now; that is only logical – there are no mining jobs. However, there is plenty of time to train people; it will take several years from the time that Mr. Coles is given the permission to start applying for a license to mine until that license is granted.

      You are also wrong about Lynchburg; there are plenty of people here who can weld and do machining; we are a city where people still make things. We are also a city where construction continued through the recession and where unemployment is well under the national average.

      Perhaps you could enlighten me and tell me where I went wrong in my assessment of the lack of economic opportunity in Chatham.

      • k patrick says:

        Aggressive? There is nothing but economic opportunity in Chatham, If anyone had $40 mil,they could buy up all of Main Street and fill a void with every manner of retail. There is a very nice Mexican and Italian restaurant and a fancy little sandwich and latteteria where I’m sure you could wrangle a salad or something gluten free. It befuddles me why the bookstore owned by a certain VUI investor couldn’t spring for some signage and a bit of window dressing. Merchants like him and a lunch counter across the street bring down the timbre of the whole downtown. The florist shop had quite the display with music at Christmas, like a scaled down version of a NYC department store..

        Try Gretna, so charming and such a vibrant downtown filled with little shops and at least six restaurants in the downtown area. Do yourself a favor and check out our new Elba Butcher Shoppe across from Jack’s. Anyone with some pluck could start a business in this area, and do just fine. I had hoped to, but until there is a permanent ban…everything is on hold.

        I must have misunderstood the guy on the news that said the technical and welding workforce was aging and mostly 50′s or better, and encouraging young folks to come to the B&W/Areva job fair at the Community College and pick up some skills. From what I hear electricians are in the same boat. Frankly, if I was a young person, I would want to move to the big city with a vibrant social scene, but here in the quiet little towns, I dread an influx of coarse aggressive miners. From the ones that I have dealt with, they are downright hostile and very ugly and insulting. Guess I should be more lady like, like Andrea, ahahaha. I do dismiss your assessment of aggressiveness, I just resist the idea of pushing a mine that would be a detriment to the county financially and aesthetically.

        • Rod Adams says:

          Ms Patrick

          Retail is not production. Retail stores can be a nice business opportunity as long as someone else operates a business that produces something valuable and pays their workers a decent wage that they can then spend in the retail stores. If someone spent $40 million to buy downtown Chatham, where would their return on investment come from? In contrast, a $40 million investment (which seems to be exaggerated, but I will take your word for it) aimed at unlocking at least $7 billion of valuable material seems like an investment with a chance of really paying off in many different ways.

          As I pointed out about Mt. Airy, there are some very nice retail stores in addition to a variety of restaurants on Main St that appear to do well even in the off season because there are locals who shop and dine in addition to the tourists brought in by the link to Mayberry, RFD. I liked the feel of the place because it is not just a tourist attraction, but a real town with real people, many of whom apparently earn far more than retail store or wait staff wages. Their regional history museum is a terrific place in which my wife and I (who lived in the DC area for 10 years and have been in a lot of museumes) were fascinated for more than 2 hours.

          Of course we are looking for young people at job fairs. That is the point of my comment. There are career level opportunities here. Our presence at job fairs – I’ve represented the company at one in Roanoke – is partly aimed at people who are still in high school and trying to figure out what do study. We talk about the opportunities in technical fields so that people who are good with their hands and like to make things recognize there is some value in classroom education – with a leavening of technical, hands on classes like welding, machining, and electronics.

          Believe it or not, some of us like families and small town living and never wanted a “vibrant social scene” in a big city. I’ve lived in Charleston, Annapolis, Monterrey, Tarpon Springs and now Lynchburg. I like my neighbors, enjoyed participating in Little League, and kept my yard nice. I’m not yet 55 but I have a granddaughter and two more grandchildren on the way.

    • Brian Mays says:

      physical labor is anathema to today’s crop of young folks, and the degree of mathematical proficiency required to program robotic milling machines will discourage most of the local youth from even attempting to gain a machinist certificate. Really.

      Wow, Kay! With an attitude like that, I’m sure your neighbors must really love you. You’re awfully quick to dismiss the Pittsylvania Career and Technical Center. Apparently, you’re about as knowledgeable about your new home as you are about Lynchburg.

      When the need for trained technical workers increased in Lynchburg, companies like B&W and AREVA invested in starting programs through the local community college to train young workers in area for these technical skills. These programs have been highly successful. Once accepted into AREVA’s three-year program, participants alternate between learning in the classroom and doing work in the field. Thus, they earn a good salary, while they’re still in school. Upon finishing the program, they have a degree and real work experience, and they are almost guaranteed a job.

      If you really care about the local economy, you should realize that industrial sites contribute far more to the local tax base and local economy than retail coming from being a retirement community. I’m sorry if this “ruins” your ideal of living in a pastoral community filled with quaint provincials who are too stupid to do math.

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