After work on Monday June 18, 2012, I drove the short distance from Lynchburg to Chatham, VA to attend a public information meeting held by the governor appointed task force on uranium mining.
As I arrived in Chatham, I was treated to a fairly common event in the southeastern United States, a drenching thunderstorm that lasted for 30-40 minutes. Though the visibility was diminished by the rain, it was hard to miss the fact that the activists organized against uranium mining had been busy before the meeting – there was a “Keep the Ban” sign about every 6 feet ringing the entire Chatham High School parking lot.
At the front entrance of the high school, there were several groups of people handing out stickers, some from the “Keep the Ban” side and some proclaiming the job benefits of mining or clever “I Dig U” designs.
The protest groups had announced that they were going to hold a press conference at 5:00 pm before the scheduled 6:00 pm meeting. Here is a recording of most of that event taken so that you can hear the concerns as voiced by the people who attended.
It was interesting to note just how large a crowd came from North Carolina; the NC border is about as far from Chatham as Lynchburg is.
Both before and after the public meeting I chatted with several of the people who are strongly opposed to the idea that someone might want to mine uranium in Virginia. Some of the concerns expressed were the same as you would hear about any development – local residents are asking questions about the impact of heavy construction equipment on local roads; they are wondering if the people who work in the mine will live in the area or commute from a distance; and they are worried about the possible impact on local property values if the mine develops a bad reputation.
Other concerns seem to have come from ill informed talking points. One lady kept shouting at me that solar energy was cheaper than nuclear. When I asked her to explain where she got that notion, she told me that the University of North Carolina had conducted the study.
I am pretty sure that she was referring to the NC Warn sponsored study conducted by a professor emeritus and a grad student from Duke University that was the subject of my post titled Gullible Reporting By New York Times On the Cost of Solar Electricity Versus Nuclear Electricity. She was unwilling to listen; she had her line and was sticking to it.
Another protester and sign carrier was much more friendly and interested in explaining her concerns. She lives within five miles of Coles Hill, the site of the uranium deposit. She is a fairly recent transplant to the area, having moved in retirement to the country after living for a long time in the Norfolk area. (She mentioned some bad experiences with drunken sailors.)
She is concerned about having an industrial facility close to her home, but I believe a good deal of her worries have been implanted by people who have not provided accurate or up to date information. Here are her concerns along with some answers to those concerns that I obtained from a geologist employed by Virginia Uranium.
- Noise from the mining and the ventilation fans – The company owns 3500 acres. The total area of the operations will be less than 500 acres and the noisy equipment will be on just 75 acres. The mining noise will be underground and not heard above ground. In addition, there are strict decibel levels that imposed by regulation at the site boundaries. (One more comment from me – I visited the site about a week ago. The family home is only a few hundred yards from where the mine and mill will be built and the owner of the mine intends to maintain that residence during operations.)
- Dust – The dust created during construction and operations will be much less than that created by agriculture during plowing and harvest seasons. The mining will be below ground with the dust contained. Tailings are covered by water and eventually will be placed below grade in a lined pit and covered with earth – a design that prevents the possibility of a dam failure like those that have occurred at other tailings piles and coal ash disposal sites.
- Rain/Overflow – (Note: Since this meeting started right after a fairly typical thunderstorm that dumped a lot of water in a short period of time, this concern was expressed by several people. You probably noticed that in the video.) The facility will be planned and engineered based on potential maximum precipitation and the resulting potential maximum flood. The numbers used as input are something like 30 inches of rain in a period of six hours. It is likely that the uranium mine will be the only structure within 70 miles that is designed to hold up under those conditions. The storm on the night of the meeting dropped 0.8 inches of rain during a 3 hour period.
- Smell – (This was a concern that I simply did not understand. I know that paper mills have a nasty odor, but I was pretty sure that the chemistry associated with stripping uranium out of milled rocks is not the same.) The geologist said that the concern probably came from someone who had experienced a mill that used sulfuric acid. That explanation made sense to me – sulfuric acid can result in a “rotten egg” stench. The Coles Hill mine and mill will use sodium bicarbonate which does not produce an odor.
After listening to the presentations from the state agency representatives, hearing the questions, watching the crowd and talking to the people, I realized that Mr. Coles and Virginia Uranium will not have an easy go at getting permission to begin extracting the 119 million pounds of uranium located on the Coles Hill family farm.
They will need to engage in patient diplomacy for an extended period of time without any current revenue in order to reach the finish line and begin production. Throughout the process, they will be exposed to abuse and to tax men looking for increased revenues to pay for the cost of imposing regulations and monitoring the activities. I hate to say it, but I am not sure that I would take on that challenge if I owned 3500 acres of land and had completed a career as a public servant.
Fortunately for Chatham and the people who will benefit from the jobs and the development, Mr. Coles and his associates seem ready to invest the time and effort needed to be successful. I wish them luck; the area needs good jobs that require technical skills and can provide a career path. In addition, there will come a time when the uranium will be in significantly higher demand than it is today.