Uranium mining and milling produces massive amounts of toxic waste. Virtually all uranium mining in the U.S. has occurred in sparsely populated regions of Nevada and New Mexico, where rainfall is often below 15 inches per year. Still, according to the EPA, tailings have contaminated the groundwater at almost all U.S. mill sites. In a rainy state, like Virginia, the toxic runoff would pose an unprecedented danger. According to the EPA,
Water is perhaps the most significant means of dispersal of uranium and related …[radioactive materials] in the environment from mines and mine wastes….Uranium is very soluble in acidic and alkaline waters and can be transported easily from a mine site.
Uranium’s radioactive components, particularly radium and radon, are highly soluble in water, which would be a dangerous experiment for a state like Virginia with over 42 inches of rain per year.
Fans of uranium mining acknowledge that uranium mining has had “shameful legacy in terms of human and environmental devastation.” As noted by the Natural Resources Defense Council in recent comments to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission:
The history of uranium recovery and management in the United States (and, indeed around the globe) is replete with environmental damage, serious worker safety and health abuses, and harm to entire communities….Additionally, most of the environmentally damaged sites have not received adequate cleanup of past harms, and for what little cleanup has been done, most of the cost has been borne by taxpayers rather than the companies and associated beneficiaries of the uranium mined.
In “Exposure Pathway and Health Effects Associated with Chemical and Radiological Toxicity of Natural Uranium: A Review,” (2005) Dr. Doug Brugge and others at the Tufts University School of Medicine noted:
Currently, the EPA lists 23 National Priorities List (NPL) sites where uranium is a contaminant of concern …. Uranium, however, is explicitly excluded from the scoring system that is used to place sites on the NPL precluding most abandoned mines from being listed.
For more about environmental and human health impacts from different types of mining, even after studies promised minimal or no impact, go here.
Numerous health problems are associated with uranium and its associated decay products. These include cancer from radon, birth defects and kidney problems from uranium, bone cancer and leukemia from radium, and lung and skin cancer from arsenic.
According to the EPA website
There are four principal ways (or exposure pathways) that the public can be exposed to the hazards from this waste.”
“The first is the diffusion of radon gas directly into indoor air if tailings are misused as a construction material or for backfill around buildings. When people breathe air containing radon, it increases their risk of developing lung cancer.”
Second, radon gas can diffuse from the piles into the atmosphere where it can be inhaled and small particles can be blown from the piles where they can be inhaled or ingested.”
“Third, many of the radioactive decay products in tailings produce gamma radiation, which poses a health hazard to people in the immediate vicinity of tailings.”
“Finally, the dispersal of tailings by wind or water, or by leaching, can carry radioactive and other toxic materials to surface or ground water that may be used for drinking water.”
In 2007, the Colorado Medical Society resolved that it “opposes the practice of in-situ and open pit mining of uranium due to the adverse health impact of radioactively contaminated water on our agriculture, livestock and civilian population.” In his 2007 testimony before Congress, Dr. Brugge described “uranium ore … [as] a toxic brew of numerous nasty hazardous materials.”
According to the EPA’s TENORM Report, “Water is perhaps the most significant means of dispersal of uranium and related [radioactive materials] in the environment from mines and mine wastes…Uranium is very soluble in acidic and alkaline waters and can be transported easily from a mine site.” This is bad. No state in which rainfall exceeds evaporation has ever allowed uranium mining within its borders. If Virginia allows uranium mining, it would be the first.
Water is used (and contaminated) in the milling process. In addition, rain falling on waste products from the mining and milling processes picks up radioactive and other toxic elements which can end up and remain in surface and ground waters for thousands of years. In the 1980s, Marline Uranium estimated that the waste pile from their proposed Virginia operation would cover 930 acres, 100 feet deep.
Mining and milling the proposed Coles Hill site in Pittsylvania County would generate hundreds of acres of radioactive waste and contaminate millions of gallons of water. To mine uranium safely, hundreds of millions of gallons of contaminated and radioactive water will have to be prevented from running into Virginia streams or leaching into the ground water. Virginia’s most populous communities lie downstream of the uranium leases filed in the 1980s.
Virginia’s Acute Rainfall Events
Not only does the Virginia Piedmont have greater annual rainfall than other uranium mining communities, it also has greater acute rainfall events. Two of the top five most intense 12-hour storms in the United States occurred in the Virginia Piedmont.
Map of 12-hour storm events.
Twenty-seven inches of rain fell on Nelson County in 1969. Twenty-nine inches fell in Madison County in 1995. Significant flooding also happened in Pittsylvania County in 1996 during Hurricane Fran.
View home video footage & map of the flooding event.
As noted by Elizabeth Haskell in her dissent to the recommendation of the Uranium Subcommittee/Uranium Administrative Group: “In Virginia’s wet climate where water is discharged from the site and filters through tailings, the transmittal of radiation to people through streams and the groundwater is a major issue.”
This experiment should not be conducted on Virginia. Virginia should take no action to initiate or sanction a study of uranium mining until the proponents of mining provide reviewable information demonstrating that mining and milling have been undertaken in five places with climate, geology, and population density similar to Virginia and in such a manner as to safeguard the environment, natural and historic resources, agricultural lands, and the health and well-being of citizens of those communities.
Uranium Mining Maps
Here are some maps related to uranium mining in Virginia, courtesy of the Piedmont Environmental Council.
Counties with Former Uranium Mining Leases in the Virginia Piedmont
Map showing counties with former uranium mining leases located in Virginia’s Piedmont.
Drinking Water Sources Downstream from Proposed Coles Hill Uranium Mining Site
Map showing drink water sources located downstream from the proposed Coles Hill Uranium Mining site.
Former Uranium Mining Leases in Pittsylvania County, Virginia
Map showing former uranium mining leases in Pittsylvania County, VA.
Properties with Former Uranium Mining Leases and Downstream Water Supplies – Southside Region
Major water supplies in Southside are located downstream from properties with former uranium mining leases. There are major safety concerns over mining uranium in wet climates such as Virginia’s, which could have disastrous effects on water supplies.
Properties with Former 1980s Uranium Mining Leases and Downstream Water Supplies – Piedmont region
Major water supplies in the Piedmont are located downstream from properties with former uranium mining leases. There are major safety concerns over mining uranium in wet climates such as Virginia’s, which could have disastrous effects on water supplies.
Properties with Former 1980s Uranium Mining Leases and Downstream Water Supplies-Impact on Frederickburg
Map showing former uranium mining leases and downstream water supplies in Virginia near Fredericksburg.
Proposed 930-acre uranium tailings storage View 1, 2 and 3
Maps showing a proposed 930-acre uranium tailings storage, overlayed on a map of downtown Richmond, Virginia.
Potential Uranium in Virginia
A map showing potential uranium located in Virginia.
Water Supplies Potentially Impacted by Uranium Mining
View water supplies in the Piedmont and Southside regions of Virginia that would be potentially impacted by uranium mining. This map also includes properties with former uranium mining leases.
In the 1980s, uranium leases were filed on thousands of acres of land in Virginia including Fauquier, Orange, Culpeper, and Madison Counties, stretching along the Piedmont to Pittsylvania in Southside Virginia. At that time, the Commonwealth undertook an extensive study of uranium mining. It was costly, time consuming, and divisive. When it was over, the General Assembly and Governor decided it was in the best interests of the people to maintain a moratorium on uranium mining in Virginia.
A new corporation, Virginia Uranium, Inc., is seeking to lift the moratorium. Although the primary focus on the uranium debate has been on the Coles Hill site in Pittsylvania County, most of Virginia’s population would be impacted by uranium mining, especially areas downstream or downwind of mining sites.
There are three forms of uranium mining: open pit mining, deep mining; and in situ leaching. Open pit mining creates large holes dug into the ground to remove the ore and waste rock which impedes ore extraction. This method is frequently used when the desirable ore is close to the surface. The mining operation planned in Pittsylvania County in the 1980s would have been a 110-acre hole, 850 feet deep. Deep mining creates shafts dug into the ground to reach ore at deeper levels. In the last decade, in situ leaching has become more widely used. In situ leaching uses a solution that is injected into underground uranium deposits to extract the uranium from the other minerals. The liquid, now pregnant with uranium, is pumped to the surface where the uranium is taken out of the solution. This process is repeated until all of the uranium is extracted. Information available to PEC indicates that pit mining most likely will be used in Pittsylvania with the possibility of some deep mining, as well.
Uranium milling involves extracting uranium from mined ore. The ore is crushed into sand size particles and the uranium is leached out. The uranium then is precipitated out of the leaching solution and dewatered, dried, and packaged. Through the extraction process, uranium is concentrated into a product referred to as “yellowcake.” In situ leaching is a combined mining and milling operation.
Enormous quantities of radioactive waste are generated by uranium mining and milling, with only 2 to 4 pounds of concentrated uranium oxide yellowcake obtained from each ton of ore taken out of the ground. The resulting waste, or tailings, contain 85% of the original radioactivity and remain radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years. Tailings can contain several hazardous substances, including radium (which decays to produce radon) selenium, molybdenum, uranium, and thorium. The mill tailings and the mill tailings effluent are highly radioactive and acutely hazardous. The Congressional testimony of Dr. Doug Brugge, of the Tufts School of Medicine, described uranium ore “as a toxic brew of numerous hazardous materials.” For the full transcript of Dr. Brugge’s testimony, go here.
According to EPA’s Technologically Enhanced Naturally Occurring Radioactive Materials (TENORM) document, most tailings piles are located in arid areas of the western U.S where low precipitation decreases the potential for water contamination.
Still, even out West, there are problems with water management around uranium mines. Because uranium is highly soluble, surface and ground water are the most significant means of dispersal of uranium and technically enhanced naturally occurring radioactive materials from mines and mine wastes. Water coming into contact with these wastes must therefore be treated or contained – millions of gallons of water for thousands of years. Read more about water management in the TENORM document, above.
Radioactive Properties of Key UraniumIsotopes, U.S. Department of Energy, Argonne National Laboratory, EVS, August 2005.
The National Research Council is involved in a study to examine the scientific, technical, environmental, human health and safety, and regulatory aspects of uranium mining, milling, and processing as they relate to Virginia. The purpose of this study is to assist the Commonwealth in determining 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 its citizens.
The study results are not due out until December 2011. Yet, Virginia Uranium, the company that was the main proponent of the study, has announced that it is already preparing legislation to lift the uranium ban during the next session of the General Assembly.
This suggests that the study is only a pretext for Virginia Uranium. Virginia Uranium, their lobbyists and their friends in the General Assembly appear ready to move forward, no matter the cost to Virginia’s health and environment.