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Is uranium scaring people from Southside?

RICHMOND — When people come to Southside Virginia, Adam Lynch said, they are looking for nature, clean air, lakes and pretty mountains. Lynch, a Realtor for Prudential Waterfront Properties and consultant for Charles Lynch Construction, said the thought of having a uranium mine in their backyard is driving people away from the area.

“I’m more of a residential realtor. But on the more commercial side, it may keep people from bringing business into our area just because the negative connotation of what a mine would bring with it,” Lynch said.

Delegate Don Merricks, a Republican from Pittsylvania County, said he has talked to realtors who are having trouble selling homes because the General Assembly is considering allowing uranium mining there.

That prospect is hurting private schools in the area, too. Merricks said Chatham Hall, a prestigious private school for girls, has noticed parents “shopping around” and putting their children elsewhere because of concerns about the proposed mine.

For more than 30 years, Virginia has had a moratorium against uranium mining. 

But lawmakers are considering lifting it to allow the mining of an immense uranium deposit near Coles Hill in Chatham.

The site where the mining, milling and tailings disposal would occur is a 20-minute drive from the girls’ school that houses students from across the country and the globe.

Samantha Parsons, a student at George Mason University and resident of the nearby town of Hurt, said the proximity would deter people from applying to Chatham Hall and Hargrave Military Academy, a private boys’ school.

“Hargrave and Chatham Hall are there, and people from across the country send their students there, and they’re not going to want to do that,” Parsons said. “It [the private schools] definitely helps the economy of Chatham with those students being there and their families coming to visit all the time.”

While Parson fears that uranium mining would hurt the Southside economy, mining proponents say just the opposite.

“A full-scale mining and milling operation at Coles Hill will support over 1,000 jobs for the 35-year life span of the mine, generate $5 billion in revenue for Virginia companies, and generate $112 million in state and local taxes,” Virginia Uranium Inc., a company that has proposed mining in Chatham, says on its website.

Many residents of Southside Virginia remain unconvinced.

“It seems like the prices (of uranium) fluctuate dramatically,” Lynch said. “When the mining operations aren’t profitable, they just shut down. There will be some people in the area that make a lot of money out of this, whereas the majority of us, when the prices go down, are going to be stuck with an empty uranium mine.”

Merricks said he personally supports the mining of uranium. However, he said the state should heed the wishes of local residents: If a clear majority of people oppose lifting the moratorium, Merricks says it should stay in place.

Merricks said he is not so concerned about the mining as he is about the tailings – the radioactive debris that remains after the uranium has been extracted.

According to federal law, Merricks said, the tailings must remain on the site where the milling occurred. The legislator fears what could happen to the tailings in a climate where hurricanes, tornadoes and earthquakes are a possibility.

Parsons shares that concern.

“The risk that we are facing in Virginia is that if a tornado comes through, or a hurricane that we’ve been experiencing, something that produces a lot of rain and it seeps into the ground, it will make that radiation leak throughout the ground, and it could contaminate water systems,” Parsons said.

Many residents of Southside Virginia rely on well water. The possibility of water contamination could make home and business buyers think twice about moving to the region, some residents say.

“I wish they would just go ahead and just keep the ban in place so we don’t have to fight over this for a few years,” Lynch said. “I think even exploring their options could hurt us more than it could help us as far as the perception [of Southside] to outside businesses and potential home buyers.”

Legislators such as Sen. John Watkins and Delegate Lee Ware, who represent districts on the outskirts of the Richmond area, are spearheading the drive to lift the moratorium against uranium mining.

“I was going to suggest that since Sen. Watkins from Powhatan and Delegate Ware of Powhatan are so adamant about doing this, why don’t we just haul the ore up there and mill it in Powhatan County?” Merricks said jokingly.