The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on June 17 upholding Virginia’s ban on uranium mining was a true victory for clean water and Southside Virginia.
Having endured economic hit after economic hit, an open-pit uranium mine in this recovering region could have driven away the very businesses and investment that Southside Virginia needs to attract in order to not just survive, but to thrive.
This is why even though it appears that we finally have legal certainty over the ban — there isn’t anywhere left to appeal — we must still remain vigilant. With a deposit of uranium valued at around $7 billion, it’s not enough to rely on a court ruling. We must ensure that Virginia’s elected leaders are never again tempted to overturn this ban and the more than three decades of environmental protection that it has brought to Southside Virginia and all points downstream.
While the Coles Hill deposit is the largest untapped deposit of currently known uranium reserves in the United States, there is no shortage of uranium nationwide or worldwide, nor is any projected. Following its discovery in the 1970s and the nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island in 1979, Virginia’s legislature wisely passed a one-year mining ban in 1982, which was extended indefinitely in 1983 and, fortunately, stands to this day.
The court ruling hinged not on Virginia’s uranium mining ban, itself — states have clear power to regulate mining within state lines — but on its “intent.” Under the Atomic Energy Act, the federal government has power to regulate both the refinement of uranium and the storage of leftover, radioactive byproduct called “tailings.”
Virginia Uranium erroneously claimed that the intent of Virginia’s ban was really aimed at preventing refinement and storage of uranium, not mining. This argument doesn’t pass the smell test of most laymen, and was rejected by our nation’s highest court in a sweeping 6-3 ruling, with two different groups of three justices supporting Virginia’s ban, but for different reasons.
The truth is uranium is dangerous at every stage in the process, from getting it out of the ground to turning it into the fuel that meets roughly 20 percent of America’s electricity needs.
During the uranium mining process, as the radioactive ore is broken apart, radon gas and radon “daughters” become airborne. In a study that tracked more than 3,000 uranium miners, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found fatalities from lung cancer were six times more prevalent among miners than the general public.
Mortality rates due to lung diseases were also extraordinarily high, with rates of tuberculosis and pneumoconiosis found to be 4 times and 24 times more prevalent in uranium miners, respectively. The study also found a direct correlation between the length of time a worker was exposed to radon gas and their risk of lung cancer and disease.
The same radioactive materials that pose a threat to miners can also extend off-site of mines and into our environment and bodies. Communities in New Mexico and other arid, western states where uranium mining has occurred, still face public health threats from shuttered mines because of dust that blows offsite from these toxic facilities.
We also shouldn’t ignore the fact that Virginia is seeing more and more extreme weather events. In September, flash floods closed dozens of roads in Pittsylvania County. In October, Tropical Storm Michael battered the area.
It’s not hard to imagine the danger to the environment that would have occurred if floodwaters had met an open, active uranium mine. The results could have been catastrophic to the point where an entire watershed might not have been able to recover.
These risks remain underground, for now, and that’s where they should stay.
Virginia’s and America’s energy future isn’t going to be met by nuclear reactors, which have been in steep decline as cheaper and safer energy sources have become more abundant.
Across the country, nuclear power plants are shutting down because they’re not economical. A recent study showed that one-third of the nation’s nuclear power plants are either unprofitable and at risk of closing or already scheduled to close. Putting Virginians’ health and environment at extreme risk to mine a natural resource that’s seeing falling demand just doesn’t make sense.
Our future is in clean, renewable energy, which is seeing rising demand and falling costs across the country. If there’s going to be an energy renaissance in Southside Virginia, it should revolve around growing this emerging industry and growing a clean energy economy to power tomorrow.