A lawsuit that could clear the way for a uranium mine to open in Southside Virginia will likely be argued early next year in Wise County.
Walter Coles' land near the town of Chatham holds uranium deposits valued at more than $5 billion but mining it is prohibited by Virginia law. Coles claims the ban amounts to an illegal taking of his property and wants the courts to overturn it.
In 2008 Virginia Uranium was hoping it could win over skeptical residents by making the case for uranium mining at a series of public presentations around Pittsylvania County. Those meetings generally ended with little evidence that opinions had changed.
Nine years later opponents' objections to the mine are much the same. "The prospect of uranium mining in Virginia under all current economic analysis does nothing good for the economy of Virginia, does nothing good for the citizens of Virginia and poses massive environmental and health risks," says Will Cleveland, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center.
Cleveland doesn't believe claims that the mine would be good for Southside's struggling economy. "What you need is a diverse economy and opening a massive uranium mine is not going to attract a diverse kind of business interests to the region."
Tiffany Haworth agrees. "Our local outdoor recreation economy which is starting to show a lot of benefits, any businesses, a produce company, a farmer, any one of our local economies. Just the perception of a uranium mine will hurt it."
Haworth directs the Dan River Basin Association. She says even if she believed in the promised economic benefits of the mine she'd still oppose it because she sees unacceptable risks. "We're not in the Southwest," Haworth says. "We get flooding. It's not a matter of if there's risk it is when it will pose the risk to our waterways. I don't know of any number of jobs or any amount of money that would be worth losing the legacy of clean water for our future generations."
The risk opponents worry most about is the tailings, radioactive waste left over when uranium is removed from rock. Haworth says flooding and runoff would carry tailings into nearby streams and cause catastrophic contamination for at least decades to come.
But Virginia Uranium's Walter Coles said in 2008 that new containment methods had solved the tailings problem. "They're putting the tailings, which is great concern to everyone, back into a pit or underground and there's water over it during the manufacturing period that contains the dust and prevents the dust from going into the air and the wind." Coles said permanent storage pits would keep the tailings secure in the event of flooding.
Virginia Uranium declined our multiple requests for interviews but the company's website says the mine would create a thousand jobs and have a five-billion dollar economic impact in Virginia. In that 2008 interview Coles talked about ideas for spreading that wealth around. "A self-governing region that would include two or three counties and we would have something like a severance tax, four-percent, that would go to pay off maybe school bonds or roads."
But in ten years none of this has moved Virginia to end its moratorium on uranium mining, so Coles and his partners are hoping they can persuade a judge to strike down that ban.