Issue #24.17 :: 04/24/2012 - 04/30/2012
To mine or not to mine?
BY LAURA INGLES
The debate over uranium mining in Virginia came to UVA last week, as Southern Environmental Law Center attorney Cale Jaffe joined Virginia Uranium Inc. project manager Patrick Wales as part of the Batten School’s Energy Policy Forum.
For two hours on Friday, Jaffe and Wales tackled the thorny issue of mining uranium in southern Virginia, and fielded questions from students, faculty, and members of the community.
The SELC is at the forefront of the effort to keep the ban in tact and is one of 16 groups in the statewide Keep the Ban Coalition, but Virginia Uranium announced in 2007 it plans to exploit the deposit.
But the SELC is concerned about the safety of the process, regardless of any regulatory standards or industry best practices—consider, Jaffe said, that the BP oil spill happened two years ago this month, despite stringent regulations on Gulf drilling.
Jaffe said the controversy over uranium is about waste management. In addition to the actual mining, he said, the process would also require milling, with the disposal of 58 billion pounds of toxic, radioactive tailings each year.
According to Jaffe, these tailings retain 85 percent of their radioactive activity, and global studies have shown that those living and working near uranium mines are at risk for cancer, birth defects, weakened immune systems, and kidney and liver damage.
“We need to take these warning signs very seriously before we move forward,” he said.
Despite these statistics, Jaffe said the SELC fears that, right now, the risks are just too great to move the project forward. Because Virginia has not yet been mined for uranium, Jaffe said, there is no way of knowing how the area’s climate, rainfall and natural disasters will factor into the equation.
Uranium is traditionally mined in dryer areas like the western states, and Jaffe fears that, even with “gold standard” regulations, mining in Virginia will present unexpected complications unseen in other uranium deposits.
“Risk is inherent and will always be there,” Jaffe said.