Published: December 1, 2011
CHATHAM, Va. -- Atop Coles Hill, a crown of oak trees encircle an old plantation house from which generations of Coles have looked down gently sloping lawns to fields that once grew tobacco. Green
Virginia Uranium has been pushing to open a mine in Chatham, but there is opposition.
Today, enormous uranium deposits below the estate's rolling hills and pastures have set off a bitter fight over mining in this community 30 miles north of the North Carolina border.
The battle lines over Coles Hill were first drawn three decades ago, but now a long-awaited report from the National Academy of Sciences on the safety of uranium mining is expected to rekindle that debate. Its release in early December will mark the start of a crucial new stage in Virginia's debate over whether to end the state's 1982 moratorium on mining uranium, which is used as reactor fuel.
The moratorium remained in place after interest in the deposit waned. A separate report this week from a consulting company retained by the state found that a mine could support more than 1,000 jobs and have a net economic impact of about $135 million in economic benefits annually. But the study also warned that a mine could bring a stigma. And environmentalists worry about possible contamination of the state's water supply.
The deposit -- which could yield an estimated 119 million pounds of so-called yellowcake -- has been described by experts as the nation's richest untapped source of uranium oxide. If the mine goes forward in Chatham, it will be the only uranium mine in the eastern United States.
The proposal is expected to be one of the most contentious issues in next year's session of the state legislature, thrusting Virginia into a national debate over energy security, nuclear power and the environment.
"The country needs uranium," said Walter Coles, 73, standing in a cow pasture atop one of two deposits on the property. "We need it for our ships, we need it for our nuclear power utilities. It's better that we exploit our own natural resources as opposed to importing it."
Mr. Coles's company, Virginia Uranium Inc., has pressed a muscular campaign to overturn the moratorium, spending more than a half million dollars on lobbying and public relations since 2007, according to state records and the Virginia Public Access Project, which tracks money in politics. It has made its case at festivals and craft shows, and flown lawmakers to mine sites in France and Canada.
Residents and environmental groups have also campaigned vigorously, but to keep the moratorium in place. Antimining signs pepper the roads that wind through Pittsylvania County, as well as lawns and pastures.
"This is going to affect everybody that lives in these communities," said Phillip Lovelace, 60, a ninth-generation farmer who paced and chain-smoked as he spilled facts and figures about the project. "This is a no-brainer. This is something you leave alone."
A geologist first detected uranium at the site in the 1950s, Mr. Coles said. In the 1970s, the Marline Uranium Corporation leased the land, and in 1982 it formed a partnership with Union Carbide to mine it.
But the General Assembly passed the moratorium that year, and the pall from the Three Mile Island nuclear accident doomed the project. The mineral rights then reverted to the Coles family.
Interest flared anew as uranium prices soared several years ago. Mr. Coles formed Virginia Uranium in 2007; he is a majority owner with his neighbor Henry Bowen, and Canadian investors hold a minority stake. The company owns about 2,300 acres around the 1,200-acre family estate.
Once a top uranium producer, the United States had only about nine operating uranium mines in 2010, and it imports more than 90 percent of the yellowcake for the nation's 104 nuclear power reactors. The estimated two million pounds of uranium that would be mined annually at Coles Hill over 35 years would be a significant increase in domestic production, experts say.
But opponents say that lifting the moratorium would endanger the environment and health, threaten the livelihood of farmers and open up the state to mining outside of Pittsylvania County.
"The record here in the United States -- mostly in the western United States -- has been a long and tragic legacy of environmental contamination," said Caleb A. Jaffe, senior lawyer for the Southern Environmental Law Center.
A top concern is the milling that produces yellowcake. After the ore is removed, the process of crushing the rocks and extracting uranium produces radioactive debris called tailings, which are stored nearby.
Critics worry that tailings could contaminate waterways, and that heavy rainfall, storms or even tornados increase that danger. The Coles Hill watershed eventually drains into the drinking water supply for coastal cities.
Virginia Beach conducted a study concluding that a catastrophic storm or flood could result in contamination of its water. Company officials dispute the findings, saying the study is based on flawed assumptions.
Another concern is that if the moratorium ends, mines could proliferate around the state, including in northern Virginia. Mr. Coles said his company had no interest in mining elsewhere.
The $1.4 million National Academy study, which the Coleses' company paid for, will not make recommendations about the specific site but will provide a broad overview on uranium mining and its potential implications for Virginia. For mining to occur, the state would have to both lift the moratorium and approve a regulatory framework. Federal agencies would also have an oversight and licensing role.
Byron D. Motley, 53, whose family farm is near the site, said he did not believe the uranium could be extracted safely. The proposal has divided families and split congregations, he said, and he is worried that he may have to one day vacate the farm.
"It's going to destroy us, I think," he said. "It's going to eat us alive."
Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican, has expressed qualified support for uranium mining. State Senator John C. Watkins, a Republican on the legislature's uranium subcommittee, said he was inclined to support an end to the moratorium. But if the National Academy study suggests that the uranium cannot be mined safely, he said, "that's going to give me pause."
A version of this article appeared in print on December 2, 2011, on page A27 of the New York edition with the headline: In Virginia, Big Uranium Deposit, and Big Debate on Wisdom of Mining It.
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