Early in the 21st Century my wife and I were touring Northern California by camper van when we decided to take a day’s excursion to Eureka, California. Nestled at the foot of some of the more rugged coastal mountains of California, Eureka’s position on Humboldt Bay made it a natural shipping point for the lumber industry fed by the forested slopes leading away from the Pacific. As we looked at the setting on the map and read about the area, it seemed worthy of our exploration for neat and interesting places to visit, or even live.
As we crested a last hill before descending to the town below, we could see most of the bay was obscured by what at first appeared to be fog, not an unusual occurrence in California in the summer. As we got closer, it became apparent that what we were really seeing was “smaze”, a term TV weather forecasters came up with so they didn’t have to say “smog” on the air. As we pulled into a grocery store parking lot to replenish supplies, we quickly discovered why “smaze” and smog are the same.
Our first breath of the outside air irritated our throats, nasal passages and lungs. Our eyes burned and watered. There was a distinct acrid odor to the air. My wife wondered aloud what was causing such an awful air problem. My memory had been stirring from the first whiff until I remembered from many years previously the pulp mill in Canton, NC, where I had once visited. Through pursed lips and semi-held breath I blurted out “pulp mill” and motioned we should get into the store quickly. We did and while we shopped we marveled at how few of the people we encountered seemed to be affected by the abysmal air quality. The Evergreen Pulp Mill of Eureka would later be forced to pay hefty court-ordered fines for spewing pollutants into the air and lungs of the surrounding area.
At the checkout, I asked the clerk if the air was often like this. She replied, “like what?” We described our experience getting out of the car and coming into the building: the burning eyes and lungs, the odor. She replied, “Oh that’s the smell of money.” I remember residents of Canton, NC making that same remark when I travelled through years ago: ‘that odor, that’s the smell of money.’
Well trust me, if the uranium ban is lifted in Virginia, you won’t smell a thing. Once you get a few miles away from the proposed milling operation at the proposed mine site in Pittsylvania County, it’s unlikely you could see any dust, let alone smell anything. But just as years later the workers and residents of Eureka found themselves dealing with a variety of lung diseases, including mesothelioma, so too will the workers at any uranium milling site be dealing with radiation stimulated diseases, most notably lung cancer.
The Chmura Economics and Analytics report on the proposed Virginia uranium mining predicts a best case scenario of a potential $6 billion financial gain to the proposed mining area. You are likely to read that fact more than once in media that are blatantly or not, boosters of business interests. What you won’t read so often is that the Chmura report also predicts up to $11 billion in costs in the case of a failure of the numerous required safety measure.
There is also the question of how much of that $6 billion might stick around, since 48% of Virginia Uranium Mining is owed by investors in France. You can be sure that all of the $11 billion cost of a clean-up will stick around. You can also be sure that the final bill will be presented to you the tax payer, or maybe even your child or grandchild. If the mines and their ‘safety’ mechanisms fail, the federal government must step in to clean it up, as they have done at numerous mining sites already. Ask the members of the Navajo Nation and former residents of the town of Uravan, CO about the cost and consequences of the lasting effects of radiation.
Tailings, or milling waste, left behind, are water soluble. For every ton of raw uranium there are 30 tons of tailings. By Nuclear Regulatory Commission rules those tailings must be put in a below grade level pit, with a liner. Virginia Uranium Mining alleges their liner will last 1000 years and will have seepage alarms. The mine is predicted to be empty, mined out, in 35 years. Some of the tailings will go back into the mine as a means of disposal. It’s still unclear how tailings stored in the mined out shafts and tunnels will be prevented from seeping into the watershed.
Because no previous mine of any sort in the United States has performed 100% to the safety level expected, it seems reasonable to expect that at some point, maybe 50 years from now, maybe 500 years from now, the liner might begin to fail, and the seepage of still radioactive materials might eventually make its way down through the aquifer, into the river, and onto Halifax and Mecklenburg, then Lake Gaston, Norfolk, and Virginia Beach.
Perhaps an overwhelming rain event occurs, as is often the case with hurricanes, such that several inches of rain fall on and around the tailings storage in a matter of just a few hours. That would work the same way as flushing your toilet, with similar outcomes downstream, though in this case much more devastating. Then, of course, since the rain all fell in one area, there is none left to be carried in the cloud to another area. Climate science indicates we need to be more worried about fifty years or maybe even 5 years from now. As the worldwide climate warms, deepening the crisis we are already in, the number and spread of catastrophic rains is increasing worldwide.
If enough of the water supply is compromised, large sections of Virginia Beach and Norfolk will be affected. The potential loss of the Naval bases, the shipyard and perhaps even the shipping port is on the table in a sufficiently catastrophic climatologically event. Then the Tidewater may join the likes of Uravan, CO, or Chernobyl, Ukraine, or even Fukishima, Japan.
This year, on December 3rd, world governments convened in Durban, South Africa for an annual meeting to supposedly find a way to drastically cut greenhouse gas emissions and begin to reverse the devastating effects of global climate change. Instead, they create markets for corporations to export their pollution and deepen the climate crisis.
Social movements from around the world organized protests in Durban and in their home communities to demand that their governments find real solutions to the climate crisis. They also demanded that world leaders immediately stop displacing the impacts of global climate change on poor and working-class communities around the world, and that they create clean, safe, renewable, sustainable energy to keep our children, their children and their children safe from the consequences of profit before common sense.
My organization, Virginia New Majority also gathered on December 3rd for our fist ever statewide Member Congress. Amongst the issues we talked about, we all agreed that if Virginia were to allow the mining and milling of Uranium, communities across the state would likely suffer greatly for generations to come. We opposed the efforts of Virginia Uranium to make profit at the expense of our health and security.
So people who live in Halifax and Mecklenburg and Norfolk and Virginia Beach, join your brothers and sisters worldwide. We won’t allow the profit motive of these few investors in Virginia Uranium Mining to potentially compromise and endanger the lives of ourselves and our descendants for centuries to come.
Keep the Ban on Uranium Mining. Work to make it permanent. Climate Justice now!