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Halifax County the new 'ground zero' for uranium mining?

Andrew Lester, president of the Roanoke River Basin Association, showed how the Banister River would be contaminated forever if excess rains, earthquake, tornado or other catastrophe caused a failure in one of eight proposed uranium tailings containment cells at Coles Hill in neighboring Pittsylvania County.


During a joint meeting in Halifax Monday night, Lester gave a presentation on Virginia Beach’s Uranium Mining Phase II Study, telling Halifax County Board of Supervisors and the South Boston and Halifax town councils uranium mining does not come with an operations manual, “and that scares me to death.”

Lester’s presentation was a follow-up on the initial finds from Virginia Beach’s Study presented to the three governing bodies last October on the Impacts of Uranium Mining and Milling on the Banister River and Dan River in Halifax County along with the entire Roanoke River Basin downstream of the proposed uranium mining and milling operation at Coles Hill in Pittsylvania County.

Jack Dunavant, chairman of We the People of Virginia, introduced Lester who presented the half-hour program on the study that pronounces dangers uranium mining poses to the Banister River, Kerr Lake and Lake Gaston.

“We catch the brunt of it,” Dunavant said, describing what could happen to the Banister River and surrounding areas downstream from the proposed uranium mining site should any tailings containment failure occur.

“We’ve known this for years, but we’ve never had any real proof. Well, you will see real proof tonight,” Dunavant said of the $500,000 computer model study done for Virginia Beach.

“It’s quite graphic. It’s something that proves the point that we’re ground zero,” Dunavant said.

Virginia Uranium Inc. plans to mine and mill approximately 63 million tons of uranium from the Coles Hill site in Pittsylvania County if Virginia lifts the moratorium on uranium mining.

Lester said the problem with uranium mining lies in the refining activities that yields large amounts of radioactive tailings - - a fine, powdery substance that can be blown or washed into nearby rivers and streams contaminating water supplies.

He explained that once deep-shaft mining begins at Coles Hill of the 63 million tons of uranium, 29 to 30 million tons of tailings waste would be the by-product resulting in mountains of powdery waste Virginia Uranium Inc. plans to contain in eight 40-acre cells.

“They crush the ore and mill it, and what’s left over is liquid and solid waste,” he added. “Only a small percent of what they get out will they keep. The rest they will pile up.”

According to Lester, the study proposes if one of the eight underground cells were to rupture, then one-third of one-eighth, or 1/24th of the tailings material would be lost in a normal storm event, like a hurricane or a man-made mistake.

The result would be contamination of water supplies, the study maintains.

“This is the kind of fight that goes way beyond political ideas,” Lester told supervisors and council members. “We all see it as a common danger to our river and to our region. And most of us are not going to stand by and be sold down the river for a few pieces of silver.”

Lester explained Virginia Beach paid for the study because it draws 65 million gallons of water a day from Lake Gaston and would be affected should some sort of disaster occur at the proposed uranium mine in Pittsylvania County.

The Phase II study covers not only Coles Hill but the impact on Lake Gaston and points further south including Kerr Lake, the second largest man-made lake in North America.

And without an operating manual on how to mine and mill uranium, Lester said, “they’re making it up as they go along.”

Pointing out the tornadoes that struck this area last April passed directly over Coles Hill before traveling into Halifax County, Lester said his fear is that one rainy season, tornado or earthquake could present a major problem for the tailings containment cells.

In the event of extreme weather or flooding, the study predicts mill tailings could be discharged into the Roanoke River watershed resulting in contaminated sediment flowing into Lake Gaston and even further.

The study simulates a rare event that regulations are supposed to prevent, Lester explained.

Virginia Uranium Inc. says with strict regulations they can mine and mill the uranium without any problems, Lester said.

“But you think about it, there has never been strict regulations that were 100 percent proof,” he added. “Best laid plans of mice and men.”

The key thing about the radium, thorium and uranium contamination of rivers is the sediment is suspended. Only a portion of it dissolves, and the remainder becomes particles that stay in the riverbed indefinitely, according to Lester.

In the event of such contamination, the study indicates Clarksville, Henderson, N.C., Virginia Beach, Chesapeake and Norfolk would suffer long-term severe water shortages.

“There’s no way to protect for it. There’s no insurance. No company could pay enough to insure the people downstream,” Lester said.

And even if nothing happens, he told supervisors and council members, “Still the stigma is always there. That dark cloud is over us all the time that something might occur. Having uranium upstream of you is going to affect you in economic development efforts and real estate values.

“We’re dealing with something that’s potentially a problem where even if a problem doesn’t occur, it’s going to be a problem by just the fact that it’s there,” he concluded.

Following Lester’s presentation, John R. Cannon, chairman of The Virginia Coalition, said the coalition group has hired a lobbyist and public relations group to fight Virginia Uranium Inc.’s efforts to have the moratorium lifted.

He explained the coalition has become known around the state as “the force to be reckoned with” in the uranium battle because “we’re professional people and only speak of the facts.”

However, Cannon said the coalition’s mounting attacks to stop uranium mining is costly, and contributions are needed.

“What we need to do is instill the doubt in the legislature,” he concluded.

Following Monday night’s meeting, Dunavant said the group, “We The People,” will show the 20-minute DVD presentation on Virginia Beach’s Uranium Mining Phase II Study to any church, civic or business group at no charge.