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Arguments in favor of mining in Virginia not sufficiently persuasive

I have followed the uranium debate for several years. I have listened to mining proponents’ views and read their press releases. I have noted the various positions taken by local governing bodies and newspaper editorial pages. I have read the reports offered by NAS and Chmura Economics and skimmed the Moran and Virginia Beach reports and the report prepared by the Governor’s Uranium Working Group.

 For the record, I hold a master’s degree in business. I have been chief operating officer of a $700 million public company, operating 26 manufacturing facilities and employing over 7,000 workers. I have no particular expertise or knowledge of uranium or mining generally, but believe I am reasonably conversant with complex, large-scale manufacturing operations and environmental and regulatory schemes. 

As noted above, I also have engaged in a substantial amount of independent research regarding uranium mining over the last few years. Combining that first-hand research with the NAS and Chmura reports, and subsequently with the various ancillary reports that were produced, I came to the conclusion — as did they — that uranium mining and milling in Virginia poses significant risks. I have waited in vain for mining proponents to offer specific and credible information as to how they plan to manage those risks. Perhaps they have, but if so, I am unaware of that.

More to the point, however, sifting through all the pros and cons leads one to a simple, albeit unfortunate reality. For reasons of population density, hydrogeology, downstream risks to water sources, weather patterns and inexperienced regulators, Virginia in general, and the Coles Hill site in particular, are simply incompatible with the process of uranium mining and milling given today’s technology.

With regard to some of the arguments made by mining proponents, let me offer the following. 

There has been an effort to conflate the safety record of nuclear power plant operations with the risks and issues associated with uranium mining and milling. This is disingenuous at best. There is no meaningful analogy between the two. A better reference would be to hard rock mining generally and the historical record of uranium mining specifically. It would be incorrect to assume those of us concerned with uranium mining in Virginia are opposed to nuclear power. The nexus does not exist.

Proponents suggest that uranium mining has been problem free in other countries, specifically Canada and Australia. I do not believe the experience of those countries is as sanguine as suggested. Despite intensive regulation, best management practices and (presumably) best technology, substantial and serious environmental excursions have occurred in these countries, with the effects limited only by the remote locations of the operations. I do not believe any fair reading of the record - past or current - suggests that uranium mining and milling operations are or ever have been problem free. 

Regarding regulations, no one who has significant experience with complex organizations and the intersection of politics and regulatory bodies will endorse the idea that a regulatory regime can be instituted that will prevent all failures. History absolutely teaches otherwise. Natural disasters, regulatory capture, design flaws, routine mistakes by employees and failures of systems or equipment are inevitable, even among the most heavily regulated and intensively monitored operations. Such failures are, by definition, exceptional and unplanned events and almost always represent unintended regulatory breaches.

As one example, designers at Fukushima ignored the (remote) threat of tidal waves, with disastrous results. Will it be said in the future that those who initiated operations at Coles Hill ignored the (far more likely) threat of earthquakes or tornadoes or hurricanes?

In the above case, and others, people were undoubtedly assured, in good faith, by government officials and company executives that there was nothing to be concerned about, that adequate regulations and company policies existed to insure against harm. Unfortunately, post event regulatory penalties and fines and blame assessment proved to be of little comfort to those who were in fact harmed.  

The critical issue is not whether a regulatory system can be developed to protect the population surrounding Coles Hill from all eventualities. It cannot. The issue is whether the cost of failure is so high as to render the risk unacceptable.

 Proponents argue that a robust regulatory process can reduce the risk of failure to acceptable levels. (One is tempted to ask “acceptable to whom’?) While that is a debatable point, it is beyond debate that no regulatory scheme can eliminate all possibility of catastrophic failure. The question then becomes,  should the state of Virginia, through legislation, undertake to change existing law such that a private company is empowered to initiate operations that undeniably carry some (unquantifiable) level of risk to the health and welfare of the broader community? The people in the area, and throughout the state, through their representatives, have clearly voiced their opinion in the negative.  

For voicing those concerns, opponents have been derided by certain politicians and editorialists as ignorant sheep who are being misled by extremist fear mongers. You may recall that all parties agreed to wait for the NAS report on the issue. Certainly no one accuses the National Academy scientists and researchers of ignorance or extremism. Yet it has been remarkable how quickly mining proponents have attempted to dismiss the conclusions of these scientists and researchers – who were engaged by the state to research this exact issue – conclusions that stated there are serious and credible concerns as to the advisability of uranium mining in Virginia. NAS conclusions about “...steep hurdles…” and that “…some risks could be mitigated...” remain part of the unanswered record.

Should mining be green lighted at Coles Hill, the issue will be fought district by district every time an operator wants to explore one of the many deposits throughout Virginia. No locality will willingly accept a uranium mining operation in their midst. That fact alone should give our legislators pause. 

This is an industry that will be overwhelmingly rejected by citizens in every community as being unacceptable in their area. Yet if uranium mining is safe enough for the citizens surrounding Coles Hill, how is the exclusion of other areas justified?  If uranium mining becomes a possible option, it will become a locality-by-locality political flashpoint for decades.

Additionally, to say that uranium mining should be allowed only at Coles Hill and not elsewhere leads to an unfortunate conclusion that proponents accept there is some risk - else why restrict it outside of Coles Hill - but that it is acceptable for families in Southside Virginia to bear those risks while others should not be exposed. This seems to represent a double standard that has been very poorly received. 

I do not question the good intentions or motives of mining proponents.  I respect the operator’s efforts to develop their industry and their assets. I have no doubt they would exercise their best efforts to be good neighbors and good corporate stewards. It is not their intentions that are at issue, but their ability to foresee the unforeseeable, to control the uncontrollable. With so much at risk, good intentions and best efforts are simply not enough. 

In sum, those of us who oppose uranium mining in Virginia believe the location and the process are incompatible, and that no amount of regulations can change that inconvenient fact. We would certainly agree with mining uranium at a site in the southwestern desert hundreds of miles from populations and navigable waterways - but we are not the first to note that Coles Hill does not fit that profile. 

With regard to those who would denigrate the motives or attributes of opponents of uranium mining – as some unfortunately have – let me note that the people whom I know who are opposed are well-educated, successful and sophisticated. We are surgeons and attorneys and engineers and business executives and scientists and regulators, as well as farmers and small businessmen and public employees. We went to Harvard and Stanford and Wharton and UVA and Virginia Tech. We hold graduate degrees and have started businesses and run large organizations. We have contributed to our communities and our state and our nation and take a backseat to none. We are open-minded and are as scientifically and economically literate as those who maintain a contrary position. And we treat those with whom we disagree with respect.

We have listened to proponents’ arguments carefully. We have studied the reports issued by the scientists. We have looked at the record of the industry and have considered the lessons of history, and we have consulted our own experience. Given that the stakes are our livelihoods and the health of our children and families, and the life of our communities, we have concluded that the arguments in favor of uranium mining in Virginia are simply not sufficiently persuasive. 

Grubbs lives in South Boston.