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VUI: Uranium mining poses no risk to waters

Virginia Uranium Inc. of Chatham on Tuesday announced its company’s firm commitment to store all uranium tailings below ground.

The announcement was made in Virginia Beach prior to the Uranium Working Group’s meeting held in the Virginia Beach Convention Center.

In making the announcement, Virginia Uranium Inc. Project Manager Patrick Wales said, “For the last three years, officials and residents from the City of Virginia Beach have expressed a sincere concern about the impact of uranium mining at Coles Hill on Lake Gaston, which is roughly 100 miles downstream from Coles Hill and supplies a portion of the city’s drinking water. All of these concerns are based on the fundamental question of how our company will store mill tailings at Coles Hill – whether we will store the tailings in above-ground impoundments that could be susceptible to releases caused by heavy storms or flooding, or whether we will store them in below-grade, or below-ground, containment cells that eliminate the risk of releases to surface waters. 

 “Today, Virginia Uranium is restating our company’s firm commitment to storing all tailings below grade, or below ground, at Coles Hill,” Wales said. “This method of tailings disposal is designed specifically to eliminate the possibility that tailings could be released to downstream water sources, including Lake Gaston.” 

Under Virginia Uranium’s plans, the tailings, the crushed rock leftover from the milling process, will be mixed with a cement-like substance to ensure that they are immobile and then placed below the surface of the ground in excavated cells, or pits, Wales further explained. 

“These below-ground cells, situated well above the flood plain, will be double-lined with clay and synthetic liners to ensure that the tailings do not seep into soil or groundwater and will be covered by multi-layer clay and earthen covers to eliminate the potential for surface releases caused by heavy storms or flooding,” he continued.  

Before Virginia Uranium can receive a single license to operate, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) must certify that the tailings cells are designed to withstand the most severe weather events possible, known as the Probable Maximum Precipitation (PMP) event and the resulting Probable Maximum Flood (PMF), without releasing any tailings to the surface, soil or groundwater. 

To put the Probable Maximum Precipitation and Probable Maximum Flood events into context, Wales said, “These hypothetical events are so severe that neither has ever been recorded in human history. This is the strict, abundantly cautious standard that the NRC will hold our company accountable to.”  

As the National Academy of Sciences study concluded, this advanced method of below-grade tailings storage will effectively eliminate the risk of any surface releases that could threaten Lake Gaston or any other downstream water source, Wales said. 

“Virginia Tech geosciences professor and the foremost researcher of the Coles Hill site, Dr. Bob Bodnar, has stated unequivocally that our method of below-grade tailings will make it impossible for tailings to be released to surface waters, including Lake Gaston. Even Virginia Beach’s own officials have acknowledged on multiple occasions that the below-grade method effectively eliminates the risk to Lake Gaston,” he said. 

However, even if this were not the case, Wales said there is another very important layer of protection that has been withheld from the public debate. 

“In June, the City of Norfolk’s Director of Public Utilities stated that even in the most catastrophic worst-case scenario release of tailings from Coles Hill – a scenario that experts have agreed is impossible under our company’s plans – Norfolk’s water treatment facilities are fully capable of treating and removing all contaminants and delivering drinking water to the residents of Norfolk and Virginia Beach well within the EPA’s safe drinking water standards. This is an important safeguard that should reassure the residents of Hampton Roads that even if the unimaginable, the impossible, were to happen, their drinking water will remain as clean and safe as it is today,” Wales said. 

In short, the Virginia Uranium project manager said the concern about the impact of the Coles Hill project on Lake Gaston and other downstream water sources is based on “a misunderstanding of how our company will store the tailings at Coles Hill.” 

By announcing Virginia Uranium’s commitment to store all tailings below ground, Wales said, “We hope to reassure the residents of Virginia Beach and all other downstream communities that their water sources, including Lake Gaston, will be protected and are not at risk of any contamination from the Coles Hill project. 

“This is good news for the residents of Southside Virginia and Hampton Roads, and we believe it is another positive step toward a more constructive, informed dialogue about how to ensure that our company operates the safest uranium mine in the world,” he concluded.