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Going to the heart of the uranium debate

The idea of uranium in Virginia seems as incomprehensible as dogwood trees in the Sahara desert. Even after reading the reports from various committees, the National Academy of Sciences report, hearing the contentious debates in the state legislature and seeing pictures of mines online, there is still an air of unreality about the enormous deposit of uranium found in Coles Hill, a settled farming community in the rolling hills of southern Virginia.

Now as the Virginia State Legislature debates whether to allow uranium mining at Coles Hill in Southern Virginia, I decide to drive out and see for myself. I arrange to get a tour with Philip Lovelace, who farms 100 acres not far from Coles Hill.

On the 34-mile trip from Halifax, I drive through little villages, no more than a couple of houses each–Nathalie, Republican Grove, Cod, Climax . . .Small brick houses; tobacco barns that look from a distance like quaint log cabins; rolling fields, edged in pine: then the town of Gretna. “It ain’t no big thing, but it’s growing,” reads the welcoming sign in town, the same sign I remember from years ago, driving through Gretna on my way to Hollins College in Roanoke.

Some legislators who have visited the area have remarked that there’s nothing around.  But look closer, and you will find the small farms set back from the road, nestled right by Coles Hill, like baby cubs to a Mama Bear.  Dig deeper and you will find another civil war; brothers against brothers; neighbors against neighbors, armed with their different vision for their families and community. At the heart of this property, at least on the surface, is a vital, long-established farming community that goes back generations.

We drive through undulating fields that seem to grow more well-groomed and beautiful as we approach what Lovelace calls “ground zero.” There in the distance is Walter Cole’s abode, a stately brick home dating back to the 1700s, close to where the proposed mine and mill could be located.

  Across one road is the 150-acre north deposit, deep in the earth. It’s only several hundred feet from this point to a creek.  Down the road is the site of the south deposit — 100 acres, where more uranium would be excavated, close by Dry Branch, a creek which overflowed just the other week.

Adding the waste cells to contain 28 million tons of waste, the operation has been projected to spread over  an enormous swath of farmland.

A network of rushing creeks criss-crosses the land; a pond sits high on a hill.  The water table is low, which makes this project especially risky. Contaminants could be carried through these creeks and underground wells down the Banister River, which supplies drinking water to the Hampton Roads and Virginia Beach area, not to mention the residents who live in the vicinity. 

The NAS warned of “steep hurdles” to be surmounted and noted that it is “questionable” whether “in a hydrologically active environment such as Virginia” the methods of  storing the mountains of radioactive waste “could be expected to prevent erosion and surface groundwater contamination for 1,000 years.”

Most people around here, 98 percent of them who live close to the mine, are against it, by the count of farmer Byron Motley, who lives on the other side of the mine site.  The most official poll, conducted by Virginia Commonwealth University in the fall, showed 53 percent strongly against uranium mining in the Danville-Pittsylvania region, versus 29 percent for the project.

Reflecting this opposition, the Pittsylvania County Board of Supervisors Wednesday voted 5-1 to keep the moratorium on uranium mining in place.

 It took the board of supervisors a while to come to this decision. The promise of jobs in a depressed economy is hard to pass up, while all the localities around and downstream — over 27 cities, towns and counties in Virginia, not counting 14 cities and counties in North Carolina in a growing list of opponents, have passed strong resolutions against the location of the mill here months ago as report after report tries to assess the impact of extracting uranium in this flood-prone location right at the Banister River.

Most people who are for uranium mining look to the jobs that are promised or have some investment in Virginia Uranium, like the farmer I encountered in line at the Gretna McDonalds.  “Been in the ground all this time.  Ain’t no harm in it,” he said.  “We need the jobs in this broke-a#@# place.”

On the contrary, Lovelace points out, jobs could be lost if the uranium mine located here. In Pittsylvania County, there are four thriving large dairy farms; a  baby food manufacturer;  Nestle, the maker of cookie dough; and others  whose products could be tainted by the possibility of contamination.

Then, often overlooked, is the loss of agriculture, which depends on clean water and air.  According to a report by University of Virginia’s Terance J. Rephann, agribusiness in Pittsylvania County is a live, vital part of the economy,  contributing  $1.2 billion in 2011, considering total industry input for timber and agricultural industries.

Uranium mining is not compatible with farming or many other kinds of jobs. 

Lovelace and his wife, Deborah, along with many in the area surrounding the mine, have been devoting most of their waking hours to learning about the uranium mine, and as they learn more, they grow more adamant.  Sometimes it seems like a losing battle, and worse, a nasty battle as some neighbors disagree.

Some neighbors have been afraid to voice their concerns, concluded Lovelace.  

 “It’s Southern hospitality.  They don’t want to hurt their neighbors. They’re promising a lot of kids a job.   But when someone is depending on you, your health, you have to step up to the plate and speak out.”