Proposed Coles Hill uranium mine: Buried treasure or hidden threat?


Beneath an estate that’s been farmed by the Coles family since just after the Revolutionary War lies the nation’s largest untapped uranium deposit, a potential $10 billion bonanza amid rolling hills, oak trees, pastures and a historic plantation home.

The radioactive treasure in the Blue Ridge foothills is pitting neighbor against neighbor and North Carolinians against Virginians. North Carolina is only about 20 miles from the proposed uranium mine and residents, public officials and lawmakers there worry that a catastrophic release of radioactive waste could poison Kerr Lake, the drinking water source for more than 118,000 North Carolinians, as well as contaminate the fishing- and recreation-rich Roanoke River as far east as Pamlico Sound.

"My concern is the catastrophic impact it could have on North Carolina’s water, and it could be major," said state Rep. Mitch Gillespie, a McDowell County Republican. "This is brand new for North Carolina."

The city of Virginia Beach, which gets water from Lake Gaston, also is raising alarms about risk to its drinking water. Virginia dairy farmers who live near the mine site wonder who’ll want to buy milk that comes from pastures near a massive uranium mine. “It’s going to ruin this area,” said Bill Needy, a 57-year-old Chatham farmer.

Mine advocates say the concerns are overblown and that modern mining practices will prevent the feared contamination. Virginia uranium means jobs, and it’s the needed fuel for the nation’s nuclear reactors, said Virginia state Sen. John Watkins, a Powhatan Republican.

“Uranium mining is done safely around the world, and Virginia is capable of mining it safely, too,” he said.

The massive uranium deposit is shaping up to be among the most contentious issues for the Virginia General Assembly as it prepares to go into session and decide whether to approve Watkins’ proposal to end Virginia’s 30-year-old moratorium on uranium mining.

U.S. uranium mining typically happens in arid Western states. The proposed Coles operation would be the only full-blown uranium mine along the Eastern Seaboard, and critics contend that the wet, hurricane-prone climate of southern Virginia is a bad fit for the highly delicate business.

Geologists discovered the Chatham uranium in the late 1970s on a hunch that the local rocks looked promising. They drove down a gravel road in a pickup mounted with a Geiger counter that suddenly went wild over the radiation readings. Mining plans were hatched quickly, but they fell through when the price of uranium crashed.

Decades later Walter Coles, retired from the Foreign Service, settled down to a life of raising cattle and hunting quail on his ancestral lands. But, he said in an interview, the price of uranium rose and mining companies around the world came knocking.

Coles instead decided, with a neighbor and Canadian investors, to form Virginia Uranium Inc. and try to get permission to mine it himself .

Needed nuclear fuel?

“It is an incredible deposit,” said Charles Ebinger, the director of the energy security initiative at the Brookings Institution, a research center in Washington.

Ebinger said there were uranium mines in a wide variety of climates all over the world. “Uranium mining is not that dangerous; obviously, you have to make sure your uranium tailings don’t get into streams and creeks and rivers, but there are plenty of ways to do that,” he said.

He thinks, though, that the United States is moving away from nuclear energy as cheap natural gas and flat electricity demand make nuclear power less competitive. That makes it tougher to argue in favor of the mine, said Ebinger, who’s a supporter of nuclear energy.

Mine backers say its estimated 119 million pounds of uranium are badly needed domestically for energy independence. The United States imports more than 90 percent of the uranium for its nuclear reactors. Most comes from Russia, Canada, Australia, Kazakhstan and Namibia.

“Other than Canada and Australia it is not exactly a who’s who of the most friendly and stable countries,” said Patrick Wales, the director of the Virginia Uranium mining project.

Developers of the mine say they welcome the scrutiny of local, state and federal regulators and will meet or exceed their standards. Opponents recite examples of uranium spills elsewhere and say they fear that severe flooding or storms could scatter the waste.

A 2011 National Academy of Sciences study found that “steep hurdles” need to be surmounted before Virginia can mine and process uranium safely.

Plans call for the uranium ore from the 200-acre deposit to be mined underground rather than in an open pit. But a major concern of opponents is the milling that separates the ore from the rock and produces a sandy substance called yellowcake. It would be trucked out, while the remaining waste rock laced with uranium, called tailings, would be stored at the site for generations.

The 443,000-population city of Virginia Beach did a study last year that found a devastating storm could lead to tailings contamination of Lake Gaston, which supplies drinking water to Virginia Beach and towns and counties along the border of Virginia and North Carolina. Mine developers dispute the study and say their plan to store the waste in containment units below the ground should ease such fears.

North Carolina protests

Opposition in North Carolina has spread from towns near the potentially affected areas to the state capital. Eighteen towns, counties and economic groups have passed resolutions in opposition, including Henderson, Creedmoor and the Roanoke River Mayors Association.

A trio of North Carolina Republican state lawmakers sent Virginia’s Gov. Bob McDonnell a letter of opposition Dec. 13. The lawmakers, representing the North Carolina Environmental Review Commission, warned that a spillage of radioactive waste would flow into Kerr Lake, a reservoir that spans both states. The Kerr Lake reservoir, owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, provides water for Henderson and Oxford as well as the counties of Warren, Vance, Franklin and Granville. It could be a future water source for Creedmoor, Raleigh and Durham, if those cities are granted access to the reservoir in the coming decades for their growing populations.

The North Carolina lawmakers also said contamination could go farther downstream to endanger "many communities in northeast North Carolina." The toxic waste would behave much like mercury, working its way up the food chain through fish, eagles and other wildlife.

The bipartisan Environmental Review Commission is asking the full North Carolina Legislature to pass a resolution opposing uranium mining in Virginia. The draft resolution, which might be taken up as early as February, says that even if a radioactive release weren’t lethal, the resulting stigma and negative publicity would harm the state as a business and tourist destination.

"All it takes is a little flood and you’ve got problems," said North Carolina Rep. Jim Crawford Jr., a Democrat who represents Granville and Vance counties. "If you have a hurricane in that part of Virginia, it would be Katy bar the door."

Virginia uranium project director Wales said his company was dedicated to protecting the Chatham area, where its employees raised their families, and that doing so also would protect the communities downstream. “If North Carolinians are worried about tailings, they should be comforted to know that we’ve committed to putting all tailings belowground,” Wales said. “Belowground tailings management is a technology specifically designed to eliminate releases of tailings to the surrounding environment.”

Wales said it was ironic that North Carolina had no prohibition on uranium mining, so if the Virginia deposit were across the border it could be developed.

“If the North Carolina Legislature wants to prohibit mining in their state they can go right ahead,” he said. “I firmly believe in the 10th Amendment, where states themselves decide what happens in their states.”

North Carolina gets 45 percent of its electricity from nuclear power. The nuclear electricity share is 38 percent in Virginia. The Coles Hill deposit, the seventh largest in the world, is estimated by its developers to have enough uranium to fuel every nuclear reactor in the United States for two years, or Virginia’s nuclear reactors for the next 75 years.

Could be up to Virginia

Virginia alone can’t approve the mine. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, a federal agency, also would have to sign off on it. The agency would do an environmental impact statement that might take more than two years.

When asked, Larry Camper, the head of environmental protection for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said he wasn’t aware of his agency ever fully rejecting such an application. So the mine’s fate might rest entirely on whether Virginia lifts its moratorium on uranium mining. The state’s politicians are sharply divided.

Virginia Republican Sen. Watkins calls it a “unique opportunity to create jobs and economic development while contributing to our nation’s energy independence.”

But the delegate who represents the area with the proposed mine site, Republican Don Merricks, says there are too many unanswered questions to allow it. Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, the job creation czar for Virginia’s governor, announced Dec. 14 that he also opposes ending the uranium ban.

“If something did go wrong, the impact of that could be catastrophic,” he said. “Environmentally speaking, the risks of proceeding with this operation outweigh the benefit.”

Republican Gov. McDonnell is still studying the issue.

Meanwhile, tensions simmer in Chatham, a small town whose main street is dominated by its Greek Revival-style courthouse from 1853 and a memorial to Confederate dead from the Civil War. Signs at the nearby uranium deposit say, “Stop Whining, Start Mining.” But there’s also a brisk trade in neon yellow “Keep the Ban” T-shirts.

Fifty-two-year-old Kay Patrick, who lives about five miles away, said she was unconvinced by the arguments that the mine wouldn’t contaminate her home. “It’s going to be an ugly thing,” she said.