Council talks uranium mining

Published 9:53 pm Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Suffolk City Council dug into the subject of uranium mining during a Wednesday work session but ultimately decided to monitor the issue more before making a decision.

“There are a lot of concerns,” Mayor Linda T. Johnson said during the work session. “It’s certainly something we need to have on our radar screen.”

The issue has been a hot-button topic in Virginia in recent years, after Virginia Uranium Inc. began seeking to mine an estimated 119-million pound uranium ore deposit at Coles Hill, about six miles northeast of Chatham, the county seat of Pittsylvania County. The site is about 30 miles north of Danville.

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However, a moratorium on uranium mining in the state has been in effect for 30 years. With no regulations to control uranium mining, and the potential for catastrophic effects to the water supply, lawmakers have been loath to lift the ban.

In the 2012 General Assembly session, a decision on lifting the ban was postponed at the request of Gov. Bob McDonnell, who then convened a uranium working group to study the issue.

Proponents of lifting the ban say that it will create jobs in a rural area and that a disaster is unlikely. But critics charge that a catastrophic event would disrupt the water supply for a large geographic area, including South Hampton Roads.

According to city Intergovernmental Relations and Special Projects Manager Sherry Hunt, the mining process leaves behind so-called “tailings,” which are 99.9 percent of the uranium ore. They are highly mobile via air and water and will retain much of their radioactivity for hundreds of thousands of years.

The tailings would be retained in above-ground disposal cells, but any release of the tailings — which could be because of natural disaster or human error — likely would affect the Lake Gaston pipeline, which carries water from North Carolina to Hampton Roads water sources, including some in Suffolk.

The city of Virginia Beach and the Virginia Municipal League already have taken positions against lifting the ban. Mayor Will Sessoms of Virginia Beach wrote to Johnson last month to ask the City Council to consider a similar resolution.

A catastrophic breach of a disposal cell could force the Lake Gaston pipeline to shut down for as much as two years, Sessoms wrote.

Hunt said city staff will continue to monitor the issue and keep City Council informed of new developments. The council also should review the findings of the governor’s working group and provide direction on the issue for the city’s 2013 legislative agenda, she added.