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Don’t turn back the clock with uranium mining / August 29, 2012
As a longtime resident of southern Virginia, a board member of the Industrial Development Authority of Halifax County, and the CEO of one of the largest employers in the area, I’m very familiar with growing a business and creating jobs.

Over the past decade, southern Virginia has experienced steady, sustainable growth. In 2011 alone, eight companies invested $186 million to relocate to Halifax County or expand their operations. This investment saved more than 800 existing jobs and created 400 new jobs in construction, energy and manufacturing in this area.

I also know what it takes to recruit highly trained and marketable professionals to our part of the state. Competition for company relocations and the new jobs that they bring is fierce. Staying “on the list” for site selection is a desperate matter of survival for a region like ours.

The economy and future of southern Virginia depends almost entirely on our ability to successfully attract new corporate investors and professionals to our area. Keeping those who are already here is also critical for this region.

Let’s not allow the stigma of uranium mining to turn back the clock and undermine our steady progress.

The risks of uranium mining are serious and well documented. Independent studies by the National Academy of Sciences, as well as other bodies on both sides of this issue, clearly confirm the risks of uranium mining for public health, economic vitality and the environment.

I understand and support the development of alternative sources of energy. However, the risks detailed in these reports would threaten Virginia’s outstanding reputation as a great place to do business, live and raise a family, and enjoy an abundance of natural resources.

While supporters and detractors of uranium mining disagree on the extent to which uranium exposure causes cancer, threatens the quality of our water and releases devastating contaminants, we all agree that uranium mining and its byproducts carry undisputable risks.

The question is: What risk of public harm is Virginia willing to assume and at what cost?

Supporters of mining at Coles Hill, in nearby Pittsylvania County, claim uranium mining can and has been performed safely in other locations, such as Canada. But uranium mining has never before been conducted in a delicate climate with heavy rain and the significant possibility of hurricanes, tornados and earthquakes — with a good number of people living nearby or downstream.

If a storm or natural disaster causes even a single tailings containment cell to tear, the consequences would be immediate, irreversible and potentially catastrophic. The drinking water supply of Hampton Roads could be compromised, leaving 1.2 million people, including our men and women in uniform at the world’s largest naval base, without water for up to two years of cleanup.

Moreover, tailings left behind by uranium mining and milling remain radioactive for thousands of years. Long after the uranium supply is depleted and the mine is closed, our great-grandchildren will be burdened with the task of keeping their own children safe from radioactive material buried in the ground, and Virginia taxpayers will likely have to foot the bill.

Supporters of uranium mining argue that these risks are just that — risks. But, whether or not any of these public health or environmental concerns becomes reality, the fact is that the mere possibility of uranium mining in southern Virginia incites fear. This fear is understandable and supported by scientific reports. And we all know that fear leads to uncertainty, and both are bad for business and economic development.

Business leaders and professionals have plenty of options. Every community wants them. Why would these people move their families or employees to an area known for potential adverse health risks of nearby uranium mining?

Why would parents choose to send their children to nearby schools like Chatham Hall or Hargrave Military Academy, given these health concerns? Why would people, with many choices, locate downstream from a uranium mine? Given the well-published public and health risks, I think the answers are obvious.

For nearly 30 years, I have been in the business of helping care for people. One of the principal precepts of medical ethics, and the very first thing every medical student learns, is the Hippocratic Oath. This credo requires those of us in a position to make decisions for the good of others to “First, do no harm.”

And that is what I ask of Gov. Bob McDonnell and the Virginia General Assembly. Before you sign away our natural resources for a short-term spike in taxes and employment, please consider the solid growth of our region over the past 10 years. And consider the potential long-term negative impact on public health, quality of life, and the economy, not only for southern Virginia, but also the entire commonwealth.

Consider the legacy uranium mining would leave to the next generation of Virginians, and ask yourself: Is it worth the risk? And would you, given the choice, locate your family or employees downstream from a uranium mine? I ask that as decisions are made about our region and the people who live here that we please remember — “First, do no harm.”

Chris A. Lumsden is chief executive officer of Halifax Regional Health System and a member of the Industrial Development Authority of Halifax County. He is a board member of the Virginia Coalition, a group of Southside Virginia job creators concerned about the impact of proposed uranium mining on the health, economic vitality and quality of life of the commonwealth. Contact him at chris.lumsden@

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