I have recently read two articles that struck me as important because of an interesting contrast in attitudes and legal treatment. Both of them discuss mining for valuable, but potentially hazardous materials in the commonwealth of Virginia.
On Sunday, January 13, my wife and I had a marvelous Sunday morning that included taking the time to read an actual newspaper – you know, the kind printed on dead trees. It is a habit that I used to love, but now rarely perform since I leave the house before any paper can regularly arrive – it is simply hard to find a delivery person who wants to be up and about well before my 0530 departure time.
I got engrossed in an article titled A Dark Addiction: Miners Caught in Western Va.’s Spiraling Rates of Painkiller Abuse that told a story about hard working family men who regularly wake up in the middle of the night for a long trip on the roads of rural VA to obtain methadone from one of the few licensed clinics. These miners got addicted to painkillers that they often started using by legitimate prescription following workplace injuries.
Some of these men have spent decades of working in underground mines with shafts that are so low that they spend most of their days crawling. As a man nearing his 50th birthday, with regular morning aches and pains, I have a hard time imaging how challenging that kind of work must be. The closest I can come is to remember how much it hurt after a car accident a few years ago. It was a couple of months before I could lie down and get a decent night’s sleep. It was certainly tempting to try to ease that with a pill or two.
Despite all of their challenges and pain, however, the miners are fiercely proud of the work that they do and the fact that they are doing what it takes to make a living in a beautiful, but economically stressed community where there are few other options for employment.
“Everybody you see here works,” says Trapp, his smoke-cured voice a low rumble. A $14 plug-in heater from “Wally” (Wal-Mart) whirs on the dash. “Ain’t no spongers. No loafers,” he says.
Work in the mines hasn’t been as good as it is now in a generation. With per-ton prices doubling in the past six years, Virginia unearthed about $1.6 billion worth of coal in 2006, much of it to feed the growing energy demands of the Washington region.
Wages are up, bosses are hiring and rookie miners can start at $18 an hour — a small fortune in a region where, as Trapp says, “if you ain’t working in the mines or in the prisons, you don’t make money.”
I have a lot of admiration for that kind of determination and found myself wanting to do something to help.
The second article was also published on January 13, 2008 in the Sunday edition of a large newspaper, but since I do not live in San Francisco, I came across this one on the Web. The article, written by Anita Kumar is titled Rich uranium lode in Virginia ripe for mining: Landowner will have to reverse ban enacted in 1982.
(Side note: after I wrote the first sentence of this paragraph, I was doing the cutting and pasting to put the link into the post and realized that the story originated in the Washington Post as well. However, it first appeared on page B01 on January 2, 2008, so I guess I can be forgiven for not having seen it. Here is a link to the original article – Uranium Lode in Va. Is Feared, Coveted: Landowner Wants to End Ban on Mining Radioactive Element Sought for Energy that has the same text but a different headline.)
In this article, Ms. Kumar tells the story of the struggle being fought by Mr. Walter Coles, a 69 year-old retired federal government employee, to develop a uranium mine on his 200 acre family farm. According to the best available data, Mr. Cole’s farm happens to be on top of a mineral deposit thought to include 110 million pounds (55,000 tons) of uranium. To put that in perspective, that is nearly the same amount of uranium as ALL of the world’s 440 nuclear power plants and fleet of nuclear powered ships consumed last year.
Mr. Coles, whose farm includes a 2 century old brick home, wants to develop the mine to help the local economy.
Coles, 69, who recently retired from the federal government and moved from the Washington area back to the family farm, said mining companies have been offering to buy his land. Instead of taking the money, he decided to stay. He said he wanted to make sure that the mining was done safely and that it would benefit the community through jobs, taxes and economic development.
“There’s too much uranium here. Somebody’s going to mine it,” Coles said. “I felt like while I was alive, it was my duty to make sure it was done right.”
I also have a lot of admiration for someone like Mr. Coles. He has a federal government pension under the old retirement system and a 200 acre family plot of land. He could certainly have taken the easy road, sold his property and passed his remaining time on earth playing golf or something equally useful. Instead, he is undertaking a difficult task that will not be universally popular. Fortunately, his efforts are getting some high level attention and support.
“I believe we need to explore expansion of nuclear power,” Kaine said recently.
Dominion Virginia Power has four nuclear plants in Virginia that provide about a third of the state’s energy, but the uranium they use is imported. Virginia Uranium wants to mine and mill uranium that would eventually be sold to companies for use at nuclear power plants.
Unfortunately, Walter Coles is also getting quite a bit of flack about his chosen path. Ms. Kumar takes great pains to detail Mr. Coles’s political connections. I may be wrong, but I read her work as implying that if his request succeeds it will be because he put in a fix rather than because the project was the right thing to do for the local area and the whole state. She also wrote this in the article:
A growing coalition of environmental groups and concerned residents, some of the same residents who helped institute the ban 30 years ago, has started spreading the word about its opposition and plans to travel to Richmond to fight Coles.
Elizabeth Haskell, a former state secretary of natural resources who served on a board that studied uranium mining in the early 1980s, said Coles is thinking about money, not safety. “He has got dollar signs in his eyes,” she said.
I find it disheartening to think that a former leader of a major state agency like the Department of Natural Resources would stoop to an immediate ad hominem attack instead of learning more about the opportunity to build a new industry being offered by Mr. Coles. I also find it discouraging that journalists often describe the opposition to nuclear power with warm and fuzzy words like “environmental groups and concerned residents” without taking the time to determine if they might also have economic interests at stake in the discussion.
One of the groups mentioned is the Southern Environmental Law Council (SELC). Their Board of Trustees list provides enough information about the professional lives of its members to show that they have at least some interest in making money in the energy business and in energy regulations. I have no problem with people of various interests getting together for a cause like environmental protection, but journalists normally do not question motives or mention that monetary interests might have an influence on the positions taken by even “non-profit” organi
By the way, Ms. Haskell is a member of that SELC’s Board of Trustees. She is also listed as a director and vice president of the Martinsville Bulletin. That paper, published in a town about 35 miles from Chatham, recently published an excited editorial about landing a new employer named RTI International Metals Inc. which plans to make a $100 million dollar investment in facilities and machinery. RTI It will become the largest taxpayer in the county. According to the article about Coles Hill, the uranium deposit might be worth as much as $10 billion dollars and require an investment of as much as $500 million. Do the math to see which one should generate more excitement and less opposition.
It is worth noting that the drive from Tazewell County, the home of the coal miners profiled in the Washington Post story, to Chatham, the town of Victorian homes described in the article about the Coles Hill uranium deposit is a twisty road covering 190 miles and taking about 4 hours – according to Google Earth. It seems to me that a state that allows the kinds of conditions found in Tazewell should certainly welcome the efforts of a financially stable, life-long resident whose family has been in the state for a couple of centuries to safely develop a new source of employment and emissions free energy.