Manson, N.C. — As legislation that would allow uranium mining in Virginia advances through that state's legislature, opposition to the move is growing in North Carolina.
A group of Virginia lawmakers voted Monday to approve a bill that would lift a 31-year-old ban on uranium mining and allow the practice in Chatham, Va., where a 119 million-pound deposit of uranium – the $7 billion vein is the largest in the U.S. – is located.
The bill now goes to the full legislature, which convenes Wednesday.
"North Carolina will be fighting this," Deborah Ferruccio, who lives near Kerr Lake in Warren County, said Tuesday.
The uranium mine would be about 40 miles from the headwaters of Kerr Lake, and residents fear waste could flow into the lake, which is also used as a drinking water source.
"My recreation is going fishing," said Lee Figgs, of Mecklenburg County, Va. "I fish at Kerr Lake, at Still Bridge, and I'm worried about the contamination of the waters and the soil."
Full-scale uranium mining has never occurred on the East Coast, but Virginia Uranium, which would operate the so-called Coles Hill mine, contends that extracting and processing the radioactive element can be done safely using best industry practices. The company has said it will store the waste in below-ground containment units.
"We're far more dependent on foreign uranium than we are (on) foreign oil," said Patrick Wales, a project manager with Virginia Uranium. "We have an opportunity here to safely develop the uranium mines that would reduce that dependence."
Jay Lehr, science director of libertarian think tank Heartland Institute, which has called for lifting the mining ban, dismissed the concerns of Kerr Lake residents as overblown.
"No. 1, the chances of (uranium) getting in the water are infinitesimal, and No. 2, if it did get in, it's easily treated in a standard, conventional water treatment plant," Lehr said.
Still, North Carolina lawmakers aren't taking any chances. Members of the General Assembly's Environmental Review Commission sent a letter last month to Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell expressing "significant concern" about the potential for environmental damage.
"The commission requests that you consider the possible adverse impacts to Kerr Lake, Lake Gaston and many communities in northeastern North Carolina," commission leaders Sen. David Rouzer, R-Johnston, Rep. Ruth Samuelson, R-Mecklenburg, and former Rep. Mitch Gillespie, R-McDowell, wrote in the letter.
Virginia Uranium has said the expected life of the uranium mine would be 35 years – the waste would have to be stored for years after that – and it would employ about 350 people.
"I've always believed in life before money," said Tommie Harris, of Warren County.
Harris and other Kerr Lake residents said they want their concerns heard before the Virginia legislature takes up the mining bill.
"The legal public hearings have been held in Virginia – not one in North Carolina," Ferruccio said.
Even if the bill is approved, officials said it would take at least five years for Virginia Uranium to obtain all required permits to begin mining.