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Fantasies of mining / December 13, 2012
(The following statement was issued yesterday by the Roanoke River Basin Association after a meeting in Chatham of the Uranium Mining Subcommittee, part of the Virginia Coal and Energy Commission. The subcommittee received the final report of the Uranium Working Group, a multi-agency task force appointed by Gov. Bob McDonnell to study a regulatory framework for uranium mining in Virginia — Ed.)

Dear Viewpoint,

In December last year, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) uranium mining panel released its peer-reviewed technical report on proposed uranium mining in Virginia. The NAS panel that included public health and radiation experts, as well as members with the industry experience, concluded that there are “steep hurdles to be surmounted” before uranium mining and processing could take place in Virginia. The NAS warning to the Commonwealth was very clear — internationally accepted best practices, which include timely and meaningful public participation, are available to mitigate some of the risks involved but not all risks can be eliminated.

By directing its staff to develop a regulatory framework, Governor McDonnell and its UWG have assumed the role of the industry’s advocate, and as such have failed to meet the burden of proof to show that uranium mining can be done safely in Virginia’s climate prone to frequent hurricanes, heavy rain downpours, floods, droughts, earthquakes and tornadoes. The UWG report contains absolutely no evidence that the proposed regulatory framework will succeed in protecting Virginia’s public health and welfare, as well as our waterways, from radioactive contamination and other hazards associated with uranium mining, processing and storage of radioactive waste.

The release of the UWG report confirms the fears of those opposed to lifting the moratorium on uranium mining in Virginia. The UWG’s efforts were seriously limited by several factors, all of which underscore the reasons why uranium mining in Virginia is not in the public interest.

First, regulators in Virginia have no knowledge or understanding of uranium mining. It is apparent that this report is based on what they do know, coal mining, and not what they don’t know, uranium mining. There are many similarities between coal and uranium operations, and consequently the UWG applied the same template to uranium mining, as the state has somewhat successfully applied to coal mining operations. These areas of concern include worker safety, short term reclamation, and limited assurance.

Second, UWG failed to incorporate, consider, and address the primary findings of the NAS report. Further, the UWG apparently did not give consideration to other, more explicit reports, such as the Virginia Beach Uranium Studies and the Roanoke River Basin Association’s Moran Report. In effect, the UWG apparently decided to answer the questions that they could answer and assume that the other, more serious and long-term questions and concerns did not exist. Some examples of these omissions include severe weather and climate threats, terrorism threats, long-term (as in thousands of years) of monitoring, and maintenance costs but most importantly impacts on quality and quantity of water and downstream communities in the Roanoke’s watershed.

The NAS report warned that: “Virginia is subject to relatively frequent storms that produce intense rainfall. It is questionable whether tailings repositories using state-of the-art design, modeling, and monitoring design could be expected to prevent erosion and surface-water and groundwater contamination for as long as 1,000 years. Natural events such as hurricanes, earthquakes, extreme rainfall events, or drought could lead to the release of contaminants if facilities are not designed and constructed to withstand such events, or if they fail to perform as designed. The failure of a tailings facility could lead to significant human health and environmental effects. Failure of an above ground tailings dam, for example, due to flooding, would allow a significant sudden release of ponded water and solid tailings into rivers and lakes.” (NAS at 22).

Yet, the UWG report fails to discuss impacts of natural events on uranium operations and radioactive waste containment efforts. In fact, the words “hurricane” and “flood” appear only once in the UWG report, while “tornadoes”, “earthquakes”, “heavy rain” or “drought” are not mentioned at all.

The UWG are the best and brightest in Virginia administrative agencies. Solving problems and protecting the public’s health, safety, and welfare is their business. In this task the UWG apparently did the best job possible given the enigma of uranium mining in Virginia. Unfortunately, their best efforts are not enough. And in fact, by not having the knowledge, experience and feed forward needed to successfully “put their arms around” such a nebulous monster as uranium mining, the UWG has indirectly given the Governor and the General Assembly undeniable evidence that the moratorium on uranium mining in Virginia should stay in place.

By lifting the moratorium on uranium mining, the General Assembly would expose the Commonwealth and its citizens to a wide range of economic uncertainties and liabilities. Uranium is a commodity traded on global markets; uranium prices are volatile and depend on a combination of factors, all outside Virginia regulators’ control. Commodity markets are burdened with uncertainties. No one can predict whether promised benefits of uranium mining would materialize, as no one can predict where the price of uranium is going to be in 10-40 years from now and how it will swing during that time. But what is certain here is that the radioactive waste resulting from the proposed operations will remain here in Virginia forever for us, Virginia taxpayers, to monitor and contain it in perpetuity. It is a very high price to pay already, even under the best case scenario. A spill from the site, however, would wreck havoc to the entire Roanoke River system all the way to Albemarle Sound in North Carolina and would require extraordinary expenditures in the order of billions of dollars to address the situation where the damage may be irreversible. The Commonwealth has more pressing budgetary needs, such as transportation and education, and should not gamble with taxpayers’ money to accommodate one company’s fantasy.

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