location of Coles Hill uranium deposit in Pittsylvania County
Source: Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Technical Report on the Coles Hill Uranium Property Pittsylvania County, Virginia
geology of Coles Hill uranium deposit
Source: Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Technical Report on the Coles Hill Uranium Property Pittsylvania County, Virginia
In the early 1980's, after the "oil shocks" of the 1970's stimulated investments in other forms of energy, Marline Corporation searched for uranium in the Piedmont physiographic province of Virginia. The company discovered the Swanson ore deposit in Pittsylvania County, as well as other deposits that were less valuable. According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch1
The deposit at the Coles Hill site in Pittsylvania County has been described as "the largest unmined uranium deposit in the nation, worth an estimated $10 billion."2 However, a 2011 report calculated there was 119 million pounds of uranium, of which 63 million pounds exceeded 0.06% uranium and was economical to process. If uranium prices are $45-$75 per pound, total revenues during the 35-year life of the mine would be $2.1-$3.5 billion, but in 2011 Virginia Uranium Inc. estimated the deposit to be worth $7 billion.3
However, Virginia banned uranium mining in 1982, before projects planned in Orange and Pittsylvania counties went into operation. Efforts to lift the moratorium were not pursued vigorously after 1982 because the price for uranium yellowcake (the powdered uranium oxide ore) remained too low to justify investment in new mining operations. However, economics changed, and the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy approved a permit for exploring 194 acres in Pittsylvania County in November, 2007.4 and Virginia Uranium, Inc. began efforts to overturn the ban.
Virginia imports all of the uranium used in the reactors at Lake Anna and Surry, either from foreign countries or from mines west of the Mississippi River. If the Pittsylvania ore deposit were developed, the two nuclear fuel fabrication facilities that have operated in Lynchburg could enhance Virginia's economy.
Mining at Coles Hill could involve excavating a large open pit mine up to 850 feet deep,5 followed by crushing the ore and separating the uranium from waste rock. Virginia Uranium Inc. plans an underground mine, removing ore and creating rooms with pillars left to support the roof. After 21 years of such excavation, the pillars would be pulled during another 13 years of mining, and the rooms would collapse. Coal is mined underground in a similar process.
The 50 states - not the Federal government - regulate the actual mining operations for uranium, just like mining for coal, limestone, or other mineral resources. After uranium ore is removed from the ground, it must be "milled," or processed to separate the uranium from water rock.
Milling consists of grinding the ore, then soaking the powdered rock through highly-alkaline fluids to separate out the uranium. The final product at the mine site is "yellowcake," with ore concentrated to about 80% uranium oxide (U3O8). The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is responsible for regulating milling operations, with permits issued separately from the mining plans regulated by the states. Federal standards for milling must be met, but states are authorized to impose even stricter requirements.
If Virginia approved uranium mining, as was considered in 2013, then the residue of waste rock from mining and milling operations ("tailings") would be stored in above-ground cells on the property that are similar to modern landfills, keeping the waste isolated from rain and groundwater, or underground in cells within the mined-out areas. An alternative technique is in situ leaching, which minimizes the creation of tailings. Acidic fluids would be injected into the ore underground, and the fluids - "pregnant" with dissolved uranium - would be pumped out and processed to separate the valuable uranium and to recycle the fluid. The Coles Hill deposit is not suitable for in-situ leaching.
Because most uranium mines are in arid locations, opponents to the proposed uranium mines in Virginia highlight the potential risks of radioactive mining and mill wastes escaping the site through runoff or groundwater seepage. Uranium normally interacts with groundwater to form the uranyl ion, [UO2]2+ This ion is very stable and soluble. When dissolved, radioactive uranium can spread throughout an area and it is difficult to remove it, though bioremediation of contaminated groundwater by bacteria in the Geobacter genus may be possible.6
Under the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) set a limit of 30 micrograms/liter of uranium in drinking water. In 2004, two wells used for drinking water in Dinwiddie County, Virginia were found to have natural uranium levels either at or above the EPA recommended limit. A water treatment system was installed to reduce the concentration of uranium to below the EPA threshold.7
Naturally, the Coles Hill deposit is not demonstrating expected migration of uranium through groundwater. A. K. Sinha was quoted in a Virginia Tech news release:8
As noted in the 2001 PhD dissertation on the geochemistry of the Coles Hill site by James L. Jerden, the deposit is a closed system. Uranium ions dissolved near the surface are redeposited "below the water table due to higher pH conditions of ~6.0 and relatively high activity ratios of dissolved phosphate to carbonate," trapping the uranium at the site in a natural storage facility.9
Mining the deposit will require lowering the groundwater level, then extracting the ore by room-and-pillar excavation or in situ leaching. That could alter the current chemistry of the site, which traps the uranium and prevents it from migrating. In addition, the 44 inches/year of rainfall at the site could generate runoff that carries pollution downstream.
Geobacter might be injected underground with key nutrients, to precipitate uranium out of groundwater
Source: US Department of Energy, Genomics:GTL Roadmap (p. 219)
Though mining plans require mitigation to minimize impacts, an evaluation of plans vs. results at hard rock mining operations noted in a Halifax County Chamber of Commerce report that:10
The Coles Hill Deposit in Pittsylvania County is northeast of Chatham, in the Mill Creek watershed. The creek drains into Bannister River, which flows into the Roanoke River. Ultimately, water draining off Coles Hill reaches the Albemarle-Pamlico Sound - after passing through Lake Gaston, a key part of the drinking water supply for the City of Virginia Beach. The city pumps water from Lake Gaston to Norfolk's water system, and treated water from Lake Gaston is then distributed to customers in the cities of Norfolk, Chesapeake, and Virginia Beach.
Virginia Beach officials have expressed opposition to the proposed uranium mining, fearing radioactive contamination of the city's water supply via Lake Gaston. If a severe, worst-case storm generated the maximum possible precipitation in Pittsylvania County (even more powerful than Hurricane Camille's impact on Nelson County in 1969 and a 1995 storm in Madison County), any above-ground containment cells at Coles Hill could break in a catastrophic release and uranium mining wastes could flow downstream. Flushing the excessive radioactivity out of the water supply might require as much as 2 years.11
In 2008, the General Assembly rejected a proposed study that could have led to a revision in the 1982 ban on uranium mining in Virginia, after one influential state delegate noted that his district gets some of its drinking water from downstream of the proposed mine. Virginia Beach is also downstream, because it draws water from Gaston Reservoir.
Then the state's Coal and Energy Commission requested Virginia Tech's Virginia Center for Coal and Energy Research (VCCER) to partner with the National Academy of Sciences, and study "whether uranium mining, milling, and processing can be undertaken in a manner that safeguards the environment, natural and historic resources, agricultural lands, and the health and well-being" of Virginia citizens."12
Virginia Uranium Inc. (VUI) agreed to provide $1.4 million to fund the study, thus bypassing the General Assembly's failure to initiate a process that might overturn the ban on uranium mining. The National Academy does not accept full funding of studies from private companies with an economic interest in the result, to preserve the appearance of impartiality, so the VUI funding was given to the Virginia Center for Coal and Energy Research at Virginia Tech, and the university transferred the money to the National Academy.
The Uranium Mining Sub-Committee of the Coal and Energy Commission also obtained a socioeconomic study of the potential impacts of mining the Coles Hill deposit, particularly regarding employment in the "labor shed" around Chatham (including Pittsylvania County, Danville City, Campbell County, Halifax County, Henry County, Martinsville City, Franklin County, Bedford County, and Bedford City). The study, by Chmura Economics & Analytics, reported in November, 2011 that:13
Opponents of mining the Coles Hill deposit have highlighted the potential water quality impacts. Because local groundwater levels are so high, opponents predict that plans for underground mining ultimately will be rejected, Coles Hill ore will be extracted via an open pit mine, and retaining ponds at the surface will be exposed to storms dropping as much as 30 inches of rain. Even with surface mining, opponents predict that groundwater will be contaminated with chemical and radioactive wastes during the mining process, and for centuries afterwards as the sulfur minerals in the "tailings" gradually changes local pH.
Walter Coles, owner of the uranium deposit, has a house located between the northern and southern deposits proposed for mining
Source: Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy, Figure 5 - Aerial Photography-Exploration Permit Map
(archived version of DMME's web page for "Uranium Exploration Permit Approved")
A November, 2011 report prepared for the Roanoke River Basin Association stated:14
open pit uranium mine
(Midnight Mine in Washington State)
Source: Environmental Protection Agency, Superfund's 30th Anniversary
The December, 2011 report from the National Academy of Sciences noted that there would be "steep hurdles" to overcome before lifting the 1982 ban on uranium mining, but the report was not designed to recommend/not recommend whether to permit development of the Coles Hill deposit. That policy decision is a judgment call, not a scientific conclusion, and will be made by the elected officials in the state General Assembly. Some of the conclusions from the National Academy report were:15
The National Academy summarized its conclusions:
The immediate response from Virginia Uranium, Inc. was to issue a news release titled "National Academy of Sciences Study Provides ‘Road Map’ for Virginia to Host Safest Uranium Mine in the World" and to press the 2012 General Assembly to lift the moratorium. However, the Richmond Times-Dispatch, traditionally friendly to private sector business initiatives and opposed to government regulation, reacted in an editorial titled "Uranium Mining: Make haste slowly" that16
"In the in situ recovery (ISR) process, injection wells (1) pump a chemical solution — typically sodium bicarbonate and oxygen — into the layer of earth containing uranium ore. The solution dissolves the uranium from the deposit in the ground, and is then pumped back to the surface through recovery wells (2) and sent to the processing plant to be converted into uranium yellowcake. Monitoring wells (3) are checked regularly to ensure that uranium and chemicals are not escaping from the drilling area"
Source: US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, In Situ Recovery Facilities
Four Republican members of the House of Delegates and the State Senator from the 19th District (including the Coles Hill site) made a similar call for caution and delay, before the opening of the 2012 session of the General Assembly (scheduled to meet for two months between January-March, 2012). Rep. Donald Merricks of the 16th District, the House District where the uranium deposit is located, said:17
Since the General Assembly includes members from regions other than Southside Virginia, advocates on both sides of the uranium mining issue have been lobbying legislators from all parts of the state. The Piedmont Environmental Council highlighted theoretical threats to the water supply in the Piedmont and Northern Virginia, alerting legislators from those areas that the uranium mining issue was not limited to just Pittsylvania County or the Roanoke River watershed.
At the end of 2011, Fairfax Water commissioned a study to document how the Occoquan Reservoir could be contaminated, if former 1982 leases in Fauquier County were renewed and developed. The report noted:18
The report determined that in the worst-case scenario of a catastrophic failure of a tailings impoundment, the Fairfax Water filtering processes could concentrate radioactive materials to excessively high levels, and increase the cost of operations. One recommended solution was to ban uranium mills and tailing impoundments from the Occoquan River watershed, presumably shifting those operations to the Rappahannock River watershed - which supplies most of the drinking water for the City of Fredericksburg.
Virginia Beach enlisted support from other communities by highlighting risks to their water supply. If a tailings pond failed at Coles Hill:19
However, if a radioactive tailings pile broke during a storm event, the Town of Halifax would be affected for years. Its water supply from the Bannister River would exceed the Maximum Contaminant Levels (as defined in the Safe Drinking Water Act) for radium. By highlighting such concerns, Virginia Beach pressured Virginia Uranium into committing to store all tailings below ground level.20
Virginia Beach found allies in Halifax and Pittsylvania counties by highlighting risks of a major storm triggering a release of radioactive material
Source: Virginia Beach, Uranium Mining Impact Study presentation to Roanoke River Basin Bi-State Commission (25 July 2012)
In September, 2012 the economic benefits to local residents in Pittsylvania County were documented in a best-case analysis by George Mason University's Center for Regional Analysis. The assumptions of the analysis helped shape the conclusions:21
The report quantified the tax benefits to Pittsylvania County property owners. In the ideal circumstances, residents would see a 7-8% reduction in property tax rates, from $0.52 per $100 of property value to a $0.48 tax rate.
The region has been hard hit by the decline in manufacturing and lower demand for tobacco. In the 1990's, state and local officials planned for revitalization of the area, long before the Coles Hill deposit was revealed.
Plans to grow the local economy are based largely on investments funded by the 1998 Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement, recycling tobacco-based money to trigger new jobs based on high-tech manufacturing. Also significant are grants from the Danville Regional Foundation, funded from the sale of the Danville Regional Hospital.
Grants have helped fund a fiber-optic network (Mid-Atlantic Broadband Cooperative), providing high-speed Internet connectivity to schools and businesses to facilitate distance learning and recruit knowledge-based businesses. Virginia Tech has located advanced research facilities in Danville, launching the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research together with Averett University and Danville Community College. General Motors has located the National Tire Research Center at the local NASCAR race track, Virginia International Raceway.
Despite the potential jobs and economic benefits from the Coles Hill project, some key local business leaders remain opposed to uranium mining. In September, 2012, the Halifax County Chamber of Commerce officially voted against lifting the ban on uranium mining in Virginia. Business leaders in Halifax County (adjacent to Pittsylvania County, location of the Coles Hill deposit) fear the potential negative stigma to agriculture and tourism from short-term impacts of mining radioactive material and long-term storage of tailings.22
According to one local business leader, the local economic recovery plan is working without a stimulus from mining. Uranium could threaten the long-term economic vitality of the area, ruining its reputation as an environmentally clean area for production agriculture and a safe area for locating a business. In addition, Pittsylvania County receives major benefits from two private schools, Hargrave Military Academy and Chatham Hall. Even if an underground mine included underground storage of the tailings to minimize the potential release of waste into the Bannister River, the association of the area with radioactivity could poison efforts to attract tourists, spur sales of locally-produced agricultural products, and increase attendance at local private schools.
A local business leader, the former chair of the Virginia Chamber of Commerce, noted:23
The Pittsylvania County Board of Supervisors has been split on the issue. In November, 2012, the supervisors voted on a proposal that included this "block mining" language:24
The board rejected the language a 4-3 vote, suggesting that the local officials may end up supporting a mining operation. The local state senator, who has said he opposes mining, has also suggested that General Assembly action lifting the moratorium could include a provision that Pittsylvania County might be granted the local option to veto development of the site.25
At the end of November, the Hargrave Military Academy president and trustees went on record as opposing the proposed mine. More significantly, the politically powerful Virginia Farm Bureau publicly opposed lifting the ban, before the Uranium Working Group made any recommendation to the Virginia Coal and Energy Commission. As expressed by the Farm Bureau: 26
To address specific concerns, Gov. McDonnell created a Uranium Working Group in 2012 with representatives from Virginia Department of Health, Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy, and the Department on Environmental Quality. That group spent most of 2012 developing a "conceptual regulatory framework" for mining the Coles Hill deposit. If implemented, state regulation could cost $5 million/year, presumably paid by fees that would be imposed on the uranium mine.27
The Final Report, issued at the end of November, 2012, addressed most of the 18 issues posed by the governor when the group was created. For example, it identified the possibility of establishing a groundwater management area, since dewatering the site will be required for underground room-and-pillar mining. The report also noted that Virginia had responsibility for issuing a mining license, but the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has responsibility for any milling operation - though the state could become an Agreement State and assume the lead role. Development of the Coles Hill deposit will require a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), if the ore will be milled at the site rather than shipped to a separate location for that processing.28
As Gov. McDonnell noted when the report was issued, assessment of potential socioeconomic impacts was delayed29
The member of the Virginia House of Delegates for the district that includes Cole Hill, Delegate Don Merricks (R-16th District), campaigned for that office in 2007 on his business-oriented background:30
Nonetheless,after the release of the Uranium Working Group's Final Report in 2012, Del Merricks expressed his opposition to mining the deposit:31
In December, 2012, the Danville Pittsylvania County Chamber of Commerce finally expressed clear opposition to mining the uranium deposit. The Lieutenant Governor, Bill Bolling, also joined the local business leaders and Del. Merricks in opposition. The Lieutenant Governor, who had been designated the "chief jobs officer" for the administration of Gov. Bob McDonnell, also highlighted economic arguments as the primary reason for his opposition:32
In January 2013, just before the General Assembly met, the Danville City Council passed a resolution unanimously supporting the moratorium. Local opposition to the project, from communities that were projected to receive some economic benefits, greatly complicated efforts by mining advocates to alter the state's ban - but key members of the General Assembly pushed forward as the January, 2013 session started.33
The Virginia Commission on Coal and Energy officially voted in favor of lifting the ban, in an 11-2 vote. Del. Donald Merricks (R-16th District), representing Coles Hill, voted in opposition. The Democratic Minority Leader of the State Senate, Dick Saslaw, expressed strong support for mining, advocating that the economic benefits trumped any potential risks from long-term management of radioactive waste:34
The former mayor of the town of Hurt, on the Roanoke River but upstream of the area that might be affected by a release of waste, highlighted two key reasons why she supported mining uranium despite claims that the area might be stigmatized:35
At the start of the 2013 session of the General Assembly, the clerk of the State Senate referred the bill to lift the uranium ban (SB 1353) to the Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources Committee, which traditionally debates mining issues. The bills's sponsor, State Senator John Watkins, had hoped for a referral to the Commerce and Labor Committee, which he chaired. The referral decision may have been key to the final resolution in the legislature, because a majority of the Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee indicated opposition. Sen. Watkins withdrew the bill at the end of January, 2013 without any formal vote.36
The 2013 General Assembly did create a nonstock, nonprofit corporation called the Virginia Nuclear Energy Consortium, and directed it to make Virginia a "national and global leader in nuclear energy." The consortium will be funded through whatever grants it can obtain, and governed by a 17-member board that includes state and Federal officials, Virginia universities, and Virginia businesses related to the nuclear energy industry such as Areva, Babcock & Wilcox, and Dominion Virginia Power. Groups that opposed uranium mining in Virginia had opposed the legislation, fearing it would create a new mechanism for ultimately permitting development of the deposit at Coles Hill.37
In November 2013, right after being elected governor, Terry McAuliffe used a meeting in Norfolk to announce that he would veto any legislation that authorized uranium mining. A month later, Virginia Uranium Inc. cited the bluntness of the governor-elect's statement when it announced the company would suspend efforts to obtain General Assembly approval for extracting the uranium at Coles Hill. At the same time, the long-term price of uranium dropped to $50/pound, below the anticipated $64/pound value used to predict the return on investment in developing the deposit.38
However, one local opponent noted the uranium was still a valuable deposit and the mining issue would reappear:39