CHATHAM, Va. -- Beneath shady tress and pristine grassland near this small town lies what geologists are calling the largest undeveloped uranium resource in the United States -- and the seventh largest in the world.
Much of the Pittsylvania County site used to be a tobacco plantation. But is now the subject of a heated statewide and national debate over the future of nuclear energy and the uranium necessary to fuel it.
Virginia Uranium Inc. has been trying for years to convince state lawmakers in Richmond to overturn the state's moratorium on uranium mining, which dates back to the early 1980s after another company, Marline Uranium Corp. sought to mine the site. Now opponents of the project say company executives have been talking up the possibility of legislative action when the General Assembly convenes next year.
"People all over the state are really starting to get activated by this," Mary Rafferty, an organizer with the Sierra Club's Virginia Chapter, said in an interview. "The uranium industry really started to push hard on this and that's why there's a grass-roots effort coming back to life."
What started as a loose collection of opposition forces in the southern Virginia area -- often known as "the Southside" -- has grown into a more coordinated statewide effort with the help of groups like the Sierra Club and the Southern Environmental Law Center. And they claim increasing support from several local governments like the nearby towns of Hurt and Halifax, Va.
"I am really worried about this to be honest. They have a lot of clout," said Byron Motley, a farmer who lives just miles from the proposed site and is opposed to mining. He is among dozens of families who live on winding roads in the hilly countryside near the proposed mine.
Even with the skepticism from many residents, opposition from environmental groups, likely litigation and the daunting task of convincing the state Legislature to lift a three-decade-old moratorium, Virginia Uranium executives say they will press ahead with their effort.
"I think it's absolutely worth it," Patrick Wales, project manager, said in an interview at the company's modest offices in a residential area a short drive from the site. "Certainly all of us involved in the company and thousands of people throughout the state that are very interested in this, we all recognize that facing our economic and energy challenges is not easy."
Wales' Geiger counter emits a loud screech when he operates it close to the ground in an area of the so-called Coles Hill deposits where exploration shows the presence of uranium close to the surface. Perhaps one can say it is the sound of billions of dollars' worth of uranium waiting to be extracted.
But Wales -- a young geologist from nearby Danville with a slight southern Virginia accent -- recognizes that there are a lot of people who never want the project to happen.
"We have always as a company have been very open to having discussions like we're having about the merits of the projects and hear people's concerns," he said.
Environmental tug of war
Concerns about the proposed Coles Hill uranium mine often mirror the worries of residents in other areas where uranium is mined and milled -- especially in Western states like New Mexico and Colorado.
While Virginia Uranium says strict federal and state rules will govern the operation, opponents fear widespread radiation contamination and water pollution. Environmentalists say there is no clean way to mine uranium.
"It's really going to hurt the livelihood of this community," Rafferty said. "The downstream impacts of this and statewide impacts are so vast."
In fact, the potential downstream impacts have magnified the statewide opposition to the project. Residents of the resort city of Virginia Beach -- about 200 miles to the east -- get their drinking water from Lake Gaston, which opponents say could become dangerously contaminated if a waste spill happened at the mine site, especially in case of a storm.
"This particular area has a clear significant propensity for these kinds of storms," said Thomas Leahy, utilities director for Virginia Beach. "The city's position right now is that they are opposed to having the moratorium lifted."
The city commissioned a study, which found significant and possibly long-lasting radioactive effects on Lake Gaston -- about 100 miles downstream from the mine site area -- in case of an accident. But uranium boosters criticized the study, saying it only focused on a worst-case scenario, among other flaws. The city's consultant is conducting more research.
"I don't think it's a realistic evaluation," Wales said. "But if the city of Virginia Beach wants to spend taxpayer money to evaluate what they admit to be an extraordinarily unlikely scenario, I guess that's their prerogative."
The company says its preliminary plan for the project will address at least some of the concerns, especially dealing with the water supply for Virginia Beach, a city of about half a million people. Wales said mining would occur underground rather than through the open-pit method. And some of the tailings -- or milling waste -- would likely go back inside the mine. Other tailings would, like other uranium mines, be stored in large government-regulated ponds and below ground level to prevent spills.
"If absolutely everything just went breakneck speed from a regulatory process, you are looking at a minimum of five years before you put a shovel in the ground," Wales said.
Opponents are skeptical of the plans. They point at evidence of uranium milling waste seeping into the ground in mining projects elsewhere. And they say the high water table in that region of Virginia may render it impossible to build a tailings pond below ground level, leaving the community vulnerable to a spill.
"I've got two wells here, one for the far shop and one for the house," Motley said. "I truly think [the project is] going to be destroying a lot of water issues here."
Concrete plans for mining and milling are necessary for the permitting process, but with the moratorium still in place, the company's blueprint could change, something adding to the critics' skepticism. "This is one of the worst places to store it," Rafferty said, "and Virginia Uranium has yet to come up with a plan to store this material."
Both sides of the issue have spent years in a tug of war, with numerous arguments and rebuttals for and against the project. Opponents say uranium mining has never occurred east of the Mississippi River. Wales said uranium was extracted as a byproduct of phosphate mining in Florida. Opponents say waste ponds would be in a flood zone. Supporters dispute that and tout a uranium mining project in France in a community with similar population and levels of rainfall.
About opposition arguments, Virginia Tech geochemistry professor Robert Bodnar said, "It's ludicrous. It's beyond belief. It just does not make any sense."
At a recent forum on the issue in Danville, Olga Kolotushkina, an adviser to the Roanoke River Basin Association, scoffed at such comments. "We don't live where they mine, they want to mine where [we] live," she said. "We are very firm in our position."
Lawmakers wait for study
In the mid-1980s, a Virginia panel called the Uranium Administrative Group suggested that the moratorium on uranium mining could be lifted with certain appropriate regulations. Now, lawmakers are waiting for a forthcoming assessment by the National Academy of Sciences before making up their minds, at least publicly. A socioeconomic study is also in the works.
Del. Lee Ware (R), chairman of the Uranium Mining Subcommittee in the Virginia House of Delegates, said in an email statement that, "not [until] the studies are available for review would I be in a position to offer comment, other than restate my emphasis through recent months, namely, that the studies are being conducted by reputable entities, and that the process of arranging the studies would be, as it has been, open, thorough and just."
Many state lawmakers expect the issue to come up when they return to session in 2012. But much of the buzz around uranium at the Capitol in Richmond will likely depend on the results of the study, which is not expected to make any direct recommendations to the General Assembly.
Sen. Frank Wagner (R), who represents parts of Virginia Beach, said, "Assuming the facts indicate uranium mining can be done in a safe and environmentally sound manner, I could support lifting the moratorium, but let me emphasize -- only if the facts indicate that mining can be done safely."
The long-awaited study may end up making only a small dent in the debate. Opponents refused to help pay for it and are unlikely to be swayed by its findings. Virginia Uranium is footing the bill.
"The National Academy of Sciences does not include site-specific studies," Rafferty said. "We expect the study to create more questions than answers."
For Wales, the company official, that is an example of opponents closing their eyes to the facts and complaining about the project at all costs. "Science is being pursued. Independent scientific information is coming," he said. "Let's debate the issues. But to discount science?"
Close-knit community divided
The arguments often go beyond science, especially in economically disadvantaged Southside Virginia, where unemployment is significantly higher than the state's current 6 percent rate. Recent numbers show the Pittsylvania County unemployment rate hovering at around 9 percent and in the nearby city of Martinsville, hard hit by recent economic trends, it is hovering close to 20 percent.
Virginia Uranium says the project will create up to 350 construction jobs to build the facility. Executives say the mine will have more than 300 direct employees with an average salary of $65,000, a paycheck that can go a long way in the Southside. There is enough uranium for the project to last more than three decades and the potential to create $140 million a year in revenue, according to a company fact sheet.
But opponents cite the boom and bust cycles that have plagued uranium mining. They are not swayed by the company's assurances of long-term fuel supply contracts with power plants or the prospect of helping American energy independence. They say that at this point, the future of nuclear power and the long-term for demand for uranium remains up for debate.
"We don't need to invest a volatile market into the area," Rafferty said. "We really need to invest in an industry that's going to grow."
If there is an accident, Kolotushkina asks, what will happen to the agricultural sector, essential to the county's economy?
For many area residents, the discussion goes beyond economics and the environment. Like many rural communities, the Chatham area is populated by families who, in many cases, have been there for generations. Motley, the farmer who lives on Motley Road, worries about being displaced and having to leave behind his 104 acres of land. As it happens, 104 is also the number of U.S. nuclear energy reactors.
Virginia Uranium executives, who control about 3,000 acres of land, "say they are not going to make us move," Motley said. "They would not have the power to do that. But regulations would."
Bodnar, the Virginia Tech professor, decries the NIMBY attitude arrayed against this and other proposed mining projects around the country. He said it is not fair for Americans to expect modern conveniences, including cellphones and nuclear energy, without putting up with necessary sacrifices.
"First of all, I am a miner. I have worked in mineral deposits my whole life," Bodnar said. "I am a proponent of mining in general because we as a society need the resources."
A portion of Virginia Uranium is owned by Virginia Energy Resources Inc., which, like many uranium mining interests, is based in Canada. But unlike other mining projects, Virginia Uranium's CEO Walter Coles Sr. lives right in the middle of the two ore bodies. His home, built right after the War of 1812, is typical of many Virginia mansions, made of red brick with white columns around the main entrance.
The Coles family is one of the area's most prominent. "They were good neighbors," Motley said, "good people."
Now, because of the mining effort, Coles has been vilified by some area residents and many project opponents. Virginia Uranium stresses its strong local connections and efforts to help the community and its troubled economy. But the Coles name is now sometimes associated with greed and destruction.
"I am surprised that he has no more honor for his home farm, ancestral farm. That's his business," Motley said. "But saving my home is my business."