RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — The company proposing to mine the nation's largest known uranium deposit assured Virginia Beach residents Tuesday their public water supplies would not be threatened by the processing of the radioactive ore.
Virginia Uranium Inc. restated its commitment to store radioactive-laced rock from the so-called Coles Hill deposit in below-ground containment cells, which it said would "eliminate the risk" of tailings entering public water supplies.
A Virginia Beach study has warned that a catastrophic weather event at a Pittsylvania County milling facility could scatter waste known as tailings into Lake Gaston, which supplies water to the resort city and neighboring communities about 100 miles away. The study's conclusions were based on above-ground containment cells.
"By announcing our company's firm commitment to store all tailings below ground, we hope to reassure the residents of Virginia Beach and all other downstream communities that their water sources, including Lake Gaston, will be protected and are not at risk of any contamination from the Coles Hill project," Patrick Wales, Virginia Uranium's project manager, said in a statement.
Robert G. Burnley, a former director of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality who opposes uranium mining, said regulators would decide how the tailings would be stored, not Virginia Uranium.
"For Patrick Wales to stand up and say 'If we could get a permit, this is what is going to be required' is just laughable," Burnley said. "My response is: poppycock."
Wales offered the assurances at a news conference in Virginia Beach before the fourth public meeting of the Uranium Working Group, a multi-agency state panel examining a wide range of issues related to uranium mining. The panel is expected to deliver its findings in November.
While the working group will not offer a recommendation on whether Virginia should end its 30-year ban on uranium mining, its conclusions will likely guide the General Assembly in 2013 if it considers ending the ban. Gov. Bob McDonnell asked the 2012 legislature to delay any decision on the ban until his working group could examine the issue.
Virginia Uranium, which had loaded up with lobbyists to push its cause, has proposed mining a 119-million-pound uranium deposit outside of Chatham, a small farming community in Southside Virginia. The company has argued that mining can be conducted safely and would create jobs and tax revenues in a region desperate for both.
But the prospect of uranium mining has mobilized opponents, who argue that an East Coast climate prone to hurricanes and extreme rainfall is ill-suited for uranium mining. Uranium mining has not occurred east of the Mississippi except as a byproduct of other mining.
"It just can't be done safely in this part of the world," said Burnley, who advises the Southern Environmental Law Center on uranium mining issues. "It's nobody's fault. It's just the way it is."
The processing, or milling, of the ore has been the primary concern of opponents. They fear huge amounts of uranium-tainted rock and chemicals used to separate the radioactive ore from the rock could escape containment cells during a storm of historic proportions.
A Virginia Beach study concluded that could occur and it would take two months to two years to completely flush radioactive containments out of Lake Gaston.
Virginia Beach city engineer Tim Leahy said other mining tailing accidents have occurred, despite industry's assurances, and they often involve water.
"These failures have occurred in the past and they can occur in the future," Leahy said in an interview earlier this year with The Associated Press. "We do assume the most likely event would coincide with a very, very heavy storm because when you look around the world, historically, water is often involved."
Wales said before his company could receive a license to operate, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission would have to certify that the tailings cells are built to withstand the most severe weather events. "This is the strict, abundantly cautious standard that the NRC will hold our company accountable to," he said.
Steve Szkotak can be reached on Twitter at https://twitter.com/sszkotakap.