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Into the abyss / December 05, 2012
From the Department of You Learn Something New Every Day comes the breaking news that it’s perfectly legal in the State of Virginia to pump landfill effluent into a manhole near you. Off-color jokes are not the appropriate reaction to this information.

What exactly is going on here? Our sister newspaper in Mecklenburg County, The Mecklenburg Sun, this week has the story of a South Hill-area industry that is suing to stop the disposal of landfill wastes next to its manufacturing plant, located inside an industrial park. The park, situated near the Mecklenburg-Brunswick border, is jointly owned by the two counties, with the town of South Hill providing the wastewater treatment. Only it turns out the park is more than merely a wide-open space for accommodating new industries — it’s also being used as a receiving station for outside sewage wastes, most notably from a landfill in Lawrenceville where some fairly nasty run-off must be sucked up and hauled off for treatment.

It’s this muck that has been trucked into the industrial park and dumped down a manhole, where it is introduced into the South Hill sewer system. The practice has enraged the business park’s lone tenant — American Industrial Heat Transfer — to the point where the company this spring sued Mecklenburg, Brunswick and South Hill to force them to knock it off. AIHT contends that the smell from the landfill liquids sickens workers and interferes with the company’s manufacturing processes (AIHT makes heat exchangers, which requires skilled, high-end welding). The counties and town have stopped the dumping, but they won’t offer the company any assurances that such a thing will never happen again. So along with suing the localities, American Industrial Heat Transfer is now threatening to pack up and leave the area unless local officials relent.

No doubt there’s a fascinating story lurking beneath what would appear to be downright bizarre behavior by the two counties and town, especially with precious jobs seemingly at stake, but that’s not the purpose of today’s discussion. (AIHT has gone though its ups and downs since coming to Southside Virginia in 2006. The company arrived with great fanfare but ultimately disappointed with the number of jobs it created (about 65, instead of nearly 90 promised) and, grumbling has it, the pay it has offered to its upper-end manufacturing workforce. More than fanfare, though, the company was showered with promises of a half-million dollars-plus in cash incentives from the state of Virginia and the Virginia Tobacco Commission to come to Southside. On a related note, be sure to check out The New York Times’ terrific series this week on the lavish corporate welfare that companies glom off of state and local governments. The Times reports can be found online at; it’ll be the basis of a future column.)

Here’s a question: Why in the world would the state of Virginia allow anyone to casually drive up with a tanker truck and pump heavens-knows-what into a municipal wastewater system? Surely landfill effluent isn’t the most benign substance in the world. It’s certainly possible that AIHT is exaggerating about the alleged malign effects of the dumping, but if workers indeed have been made sick by toxins, then someone ought to be called to account. Yet it seems in Virginia the concept of accountability is murky indeed.

Agencies with primary responsibility for regulating the dumping of wastes include the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) and the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). As it happens — and here’s where we make a pivot to the main point of today’s column — DEQ and the health department have been in the news this week with the release of the latest study on uranium mining in Virginia. The Uranium Working Group, comprised of officials from DEQ, HDH and the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy (DMME), has set forth a possible framework for regulating the Coles Hill uranium mine in Pittsylvania County. The Uranium Working Group made no recommendations on the advisability of allowing uranium mining in Virginia, but it did offer a can-do take on the state’s ability to establish an effective oversight regime. In response, Gov. McDonnell says he will “carefully” weigh the Working Group’s recommendations and get back with his own ideas in a few weeks.

Lest you be inspired to read the entire thing (the Working Group’s report can be downloaded at our website) be forewarned: What awaits is 125 pages of pure wonkery, written by bureaucrats for the enjoyment of other bureaucrats, an insomniac’s best friend. One always wonders how fully the people in charge of making laws actually grasp the stuff they’re putting on the books, but a few pages into the Working Group report and one’s sneaking suspicions give way to an overriding sense of “nuh-uh.” As in: There’s no way your average legislator in Richmond has the mental prowess or testicular fortitude to plow through this technocratic word salad. Compared to the Working Group study, the heady yet reasonably digestible report on uranium mining by the National Academy of Sciences reads like “Fifty Shades of Grey.”

You know, you really do have to take your hat off to the authors of the Working Group report. Their handiwork is infused with precision, caution and diligence — in other words, qualities that in the real world are all too often shucked by the roadside, like so much landfill waste. Regulations are our response to situations where we know certain things are problematic, but not so problematic that apocalypse might result if something goes horribly wrong. Banks, for instance, are essential institutions for a functioning economy. We regulate them to keep them from blowing up; when people get self-satisfied or lazy or corrupt, sometimes the banks blow up anyway, leading to a re-evaluation of the old rules and imposition of new ones. Lather, rinse, repeat. Yet at no point do the risks inherent with banking exceed the social benefits — even though, ahem, that proposition has been tested too often over the past few years — and no one in their right mind would suggest that we respond to abuses by shutting the entire industry down.

Uranium mining, I would humbly submit, is different. It really is too hazardous to leave to the imperfectabilities of the regulatory state — at least not in Virginia, where the next natural disaster could at any given moment be swirling gently over the Caribbean, experiencing birth pangs on a warm day. (Warm days have been unusually plentiful lately, in case no one has noticed.) The idea of permitting uranium mining in a hurricane zone, near a population center, is plainly nuts, and anyone not on Virginia Uranium’s payroll or in the thrall of its corporatist rhetoric knows it. (One can’t be hopeful about McDonnell on the latter score.) Even if regulators could be relied upon, what about the politicians who control their budgets and write the laws, not only now, but for decades and centuries into the future? The human tendency toward complacency is reason enough to consign the Working Group report to a nice dark shelf where it belongs. True, the multi-agency task force offers scads of solemn advice on uranium mining; but what if people in the distant or not-distant future don’t treat the subject with equal seriousness?

Predictably, the ink had hardly had time to dry on the Working Group report before State Sen. John Watkins, a Powhatan County Republican, announced he would introduce a bill in the upcoming General Assembly session to codify its recommendations into law. Or so Watkins says; we’ll see if his bill actually tracks the UWG report to the letter, or if he and others use the occasion to sneak in a bunch of shortcuts designed to energize Virginia Uranium’s bottom line. (I’m betting the latter.) Watkins said he read the report over the weekend immediately after it was released on Friday morning; put me down as skeptical on that claim. Maybe Watkins should worry that the drinking water in the Richmond area is properly regulated to ensure against the trace of amphetamines.

In the meantime, anyone who thinks that state agencies, even here in good-government Virginia (although it really isn’t), can be depended on to protect against the release of radioactive toxins for hundreds or thousands of years probably ought to stay away from manhole covers, at least as they’re utilized in Mecklenburg County. That said, our neighbor county has produced a useful symbol in the ongoing uranium debate: a dark void, where all kinds of questionable activity is taking place. Descend down that hole at your own risk. Here in Southside Virginia, in the valley of the shadow of the Coles Hill mine, hoo boy, don‘t we know it.

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