SOMERSET — The decades-old debate over uranium mining in Virginia has been reignited by Virginia Uranium Inc.’s efforts to end a 1982 state moratorium on digging out the radioactive ore. The General Assembly is expected to consider an end to the ban in its 2012 session in what could spark a pitched environmental battle.
While the company says it’s focused on a single huge deposit in southern Virginia, opponents fear that an end to the ban would lead to mines around the state. Studies and geological analyses suggest other deposits could be found in the state, including this Orange County farming community in the shadow of the Blue Ridge mountains.
Dairy farmer Bill Speiden is often cited by uranium opponents because he rejected a mining company that approached him 30 years ago about leasing his rolling fields. If the ban is lifted, Speiden urges caution from his neighbors in Somerset.
“I would suggest they learn something about it before they sign on the dotted line,” Speiden said of his neighbors.
The Keep the Ban Coalition, which opposes uranium mining, contends the ban’s end “means Virginians throughout the state could potentially be affected by uranium mining, milling and waste disposal.” Individual activists have also sounded the alarm to enlist others in their statewide fight.
Virginia Uranium insists it has designs only on a 3,000-acre site near the North Carolina line in Chatham that it values at $8 billion to $10 billion. The Southside deposit is called Coles Hill.
“We have more uranium than anybody else in the United States,” said Virginia Uranium’s project manager, Patrick Wales. “We’ve got our hands full with that right now.”
The 119 million-pound deposit, located under farmland owned by the Coles family, is believed to be the seventh-largest uranium deposit in the world and could fuel U.S. nuclear power plants for 2 1/2 years.
Virginia Uranium has said mining would create hundreds of jobs in a region where unemployment hovers around double-digit percentages following the decline of the tobacco and textile industries. Opponents fear mining and the milling to separate the ore from rock will foul farmland and water supplies. Most U.S. uranium mining occurs in the arid West.
The most definitive survey of the state’s uranium potential gives some credence to opponents’ alarm.
Conducted in the 1980s by the Department of Energy, the National Uranium Resource Evaluation program, or NURE, identified several favorable belts — typically other rock types and geological formations that have background concentrations of uranium.
While geologists acknowledge studies have shown the potential for new discoveries in Virginia, they are a bit more skeptical about the prospect of mining beyond Coles Hill.
“Having the correct geology that could host a uranium deposit is one thing, but actually having the uranium deposit there is very different,” said Robert Bodnar, a Virginia Tech geologist. “Until you start to actually dig a hole in the ground, you don’t really know what you have.”
Mining companies have to roll the dice on a speculative deposit. It requires a huge upfront investment and favorable prices for uranium in a global market that has been rocked by the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. The earthquake triggered a nuclear power disaster, shaking global confidence in nuclear power.
More than $60 million has been invested in defining the Coles Hill deposit, Wales said.
Then, the deposit has to be worth mining, geologists say.
“It takes many years and tens to hundreds of millions of dollars before you can be certain that you have a deposit that is large enough, has a high enough grade and has the various physical and chemical characteristics that allows you to remove the metal from the rock,” Bodnar said.
The Coles Hill uranium deposit was discovered in the 1970s, as nuclear power emerged as a promising source of clean energy. The discovery of the Pittsylvania County lode spawned interest in Speiden’s property and thousands of other acres across the state that NURE identified as potential uranium deposits.
“A common scenario in mineral exploration is that a large discovery such as Coles Hill is followed by an influx of exploration companies who comb the countryside and discover additional deposits,” Susan Hall of the U.S. Geological Survey wrote in an email to The Associated Press.
Like many of his neighbors in Orange County, Speiden heard from a mining company that wanted to pay him $2 an acre for the mineral leases on his property, which he said has such high radioactive readings it interferes with metal detectors used by Civil War relic hunters. The Speidens were also promised 7 percent of the royalties of whatever was mined.
“I was a little bit dubious,” Speiden said.
So he and his late wife, Sandra, took a fact-finding mission out West, visiting mining sites and talking to residents.
“The negative impacts on the ranchers and the water supplies out there just scared the heck out of us,” Speiden said. “They wanted to lease my farm and made some pretty nice offers. I couldn’t have it on my conscience.”
The accident at Three Mile Island snuffed interest in further exploration in Virginia, and the state instituted the ban. Now, with Three Mile Island and the Chernobyl nuclear accident in Ukraine fading into history, Virginia Uranium has forged ahead to tap the Coles Hill deposit by aggressively lobbying the General Assembly to end the moratorium.
To this day, however, Coles Hill in Pittsylvania County remains the only known commercially viable uranium deposit in Virginia, according to geologists and studies.
State mining officials say no exploratory permits have been issued in Virginia since the 1980s, so suspected uranium deposits remain just that — suspected. The possible deposits generally are located north of Charlottesville, running north into Orange, Culpeper, Madison and Fauquier counties.
Geologists say that mining Coles Hill, however, could beget more mining. As mining begins, “new mineable resources are often identified,” said Jim Otton, a retired U.S. geologist who has researched potential occurrences of uranium in Virginia.
A presentation to investors earlier this year on the Coles Hill deposit only fueled opponents’ fears.
The president and CEO of Virginia Energy Resources, which has a 30 percent stake in Coles Hill, said the Virginia deposit would rival a huge find in northern Saskatchewan, Canada, in an area called the Athabasca Basin.
In remarks to investors in February in London, Walter Coles Jr. said the company’s lead geologist is “insistent to this day that Coles Hill is the first of more major discoveries in Virginia that might lead to another Athabasca-style resource play.”
Mining opponents fear just that will occur if Virginia opens the door to mining.
“If you lift the ban and you begin mining at Coles Hill, that changes the economics for other finds throughout the state,” said Cale Jaffe, a senior staff attorney with the Charlottesville-based Southern Environmental Law Center, which has taken the lead in organizing opposition to lifting the ban. “The question of statewide impact will undoubtedly be an important component in the public debate going forward.”