Uranium Mining – The Virginia Battleground – Environmental Concerns vs. Corporate Interests Part Three

Chatham Courthouse
Chatham Courthouse
Frank’s Pizza and Subs is in an area known as Tightsqueeze, named after a narrow dirt road 120 years ago. It is just outside the town of Chatham, seat of government for Pittsylvania County, in south central Virginia, an area known as Southside. Frank’s is especially popular for pizza and steak-and-cheese and boasts a loyal following. There is nothing fancy here. Customers drink out of hard blue plastic cups that advertise a variety of businesses: a towing company, O.K. Mobile Home Park, Virginia Uranium, Inc.

Virginia Uranium has left nothing to chance in its quest to get permission to mine a 119-million-pound uranium ore deposit near the Coles Hill area of the county. Most of its efforts have been far more costly than cups at a pizza shop. The company has spread money around to politicians, professors, lobbyists and influential Virginians in what is shaping up to be one of the biggest battles in the Virginia General Assembly next year. A long awaited study by the National Academy of Sciences on the health and safety impacts of uranium mining is due out in December, just before the legislature convenes in January.

A Coles Hill deposit was discovered in 1978 by the now defunct Canadian company, Marline Uranium Corp. When the company approached the General Assembly for permission to mine the deposit in 1982, the legislature agreed to study the issue but put a moratorium on mining until a decision could be reached. A bill establishing the framework for mining was drafted in 1985 but never voted on. In the meantime the uranium market tanked and Marline lost interest.

The Coles Hill site is surrounded by rolling hills, grazing cattle, and rivers and streams that eventually drain into the Roanoke River. It includes the historic farmhouse where Walt and Alice Coles live and the home of the Henry Bowles family. Walt Coles Sr. is president of Virginia Uranium, heavily financed by huge Canadian firms. His son, Walt Coles Jr., is vice president.

Virginia Uranium began exploratory drilling at Coles Hill in Pittsylvania County on December 14, 2007.
Virginia Uranium began exploratory drilling at Coles Hill in Pittsylvania County on December 14, 2007.
Virginia Uranium hopes to persuade legislators that mining can be done safely with modern technology and strict regulation. It says that the mine will create 324 jobs in this area that has been ravaged by the demise of the tobacco, textile and furniture industries. The company also says the mine will pour $140 million a year into the local economy. And the company says that uranium, used for nuclear energy, contributes to a cleaner environment.

Opponents argue that mining will leave tons of toxic waste materials that will remain radioactive for thousands of years. Uranium mining has so far been done out West, where the climate is arid. Opponents say Virginia’s heavy rains and hurricanes increase the risk that waste will seep into groundwater or contaminate surface rivers and streams, including the Roanoke. And they point to studies that have linked uranium mining to cancer.

As for strict regulation of mining, opponents ask how the state will pay for enforcement. In 2010, Virginia said it could not afford the National Academy’s study, which the uranium panel of the state Coal and Energy Commission recommended, and asked Virginia Uranium to put up the $1.1 million.

The Academy’s guidelines bar a private company from paying more than 50 percent of the cost of a study. Because Virginia said it had no money to pay for the review, the Academy and the state came up with a way Virginia Uranium could pay for the study without violating the guidelines, Academy spokeswoman Jennifer Walsh says. The company paid for the report, but the Academy did not accept the funding directly from Virginia Uranium.

In order to avoid contact with Virginia Uranium, the Academy asked that the company give the money to the state and that the state then give it to Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. Virginia Tech was named a “sponsor” of the study so that it could handle the money, which it then paid to the Academy. Virginia Uranium paid Virginia Tech $300,000 for administering the study.

Some mine opponents have criticized the study because it will review mining generally but will not look directly at the proposed mine in Coles Hill. The Academy followed the state Coal and Energy Commission’s directives in establishing the parameters for its study, Walsh says.

Virginia Uranium has paid just over $1 million to Virginia Tech, including the money to oversee the study and $723,000 in two grants to geochemistry professor Robert Bodnar, an outspoken supporter of lifting the moratorium on mining. The professor solicited a grant in 2008, records show, asking for funding to cover tuition and a stipend for a student and the cost of experiments, as well as a summer salary for himself and his expenses to travel to a conference to present his findings.

Bodnar says college professors are only paid nine months of the year and that he always asks for a summer salary, which is standard in grant applications. He says faculty members are expected to find research work in the summer. Grants are considered prestigious in academia and Bodnar says he lists the grants he has received from Virginia Uranium on his curriculum vitae.

Professor Robert Bodnar with Governor Robert McDonnell
Professor Robert Bodnar with Governor Robert McDonnell
Bodnar frequently talks with the news media about his support for mining and appeared at a November forum in Richmond as a geochemistry professor whose research has led him to believe that uranium mining can be done safely. He told the group that the state moratorium should “absolutely” be lifted.

Bodnar says he sees no reason to disclose his funding from Virginia Uranium, arguing that it is a matter of public record. Told information about one of the grants was obtained under a Freedom of Information request, a complicated and sometimes costly legal process that forces a public entity to turn over information, he says that it is, therefore, accessible to the public. He says he sees no conflict in speaking out as an expert for permitting mining in Virginia while he is receiving funding from Virginia Uranium. Bodnar says he has supported mining throughout his 35-year career.

“I’m pro-mining but that has nothing to do with me supporting Virginia Uranium’s efforts,” Bodnar says. “I’ve never talked on behalf of Virginia Uranium’s efforts – never, ever.”

Money to the General Assembly has flowed freely from both sides of the mining debate.

The Virginia League of Conservation Voters, which has lobbied the legislature on scores of issues since 2008, including mining, has made $250,756 in political contributions over the last four years, according to the Virginia Public Access Project, which tracks money and politics in the state. Most of the contributions have been “in-kind” rather than cash. They have made phone calls, hired canvassers to go door-to-door and printed and mailed campaign material, for example, says Lisa Guthrie, Executive Director of the League.

“We do a lot of voter outreach to engage voters in the process,” she says. “We’re spreading the word and engaging the electorate in the process.”

The League contributed a substantial $50,317 worth of in-kind contributions, including phone calls and other campaign help, to Sen. David Marsden (D-Burke) who serves on the Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources Committee. The panel is expected to play a key role in the mining debate. The League gave in-kind contributions of $46,725 in mailing and other on-the-ground campaign support to newcomer Shawn Mitchell, a Democrat who lost his bid to represent the new 13th district in Loudoun and Prince William counties.

Since 2008, Virginia Uranium has made $151,650 in cash donations to political action committees, a celebration for Republican Gov. Robert McDonnell and the campaigns of 72 current or former legislators. That is more than half the 140 members of the General Assembly.

The company has given more than twice as much to Republicans as it has to Democrats in the last four years, but Democrats have also enjoyed the company’s largesse. Virginia Uranium gave the state Republican Party $17,000 and the state Democratic Party $11,500.

Former Senate Democratic Majority Leader Richard Saslaw (Fairfax), who has made an issue of refusing the company’s offers of a trip to France to see a mine and a helicopter ride to Coles Hill, received $13,000 in campaign donations, the most the company gave to a single legislator. It is unclear what position Saslaw will hold in next year’s session because Democrats and Republicans in the senate are split 20 to 20 with Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling able to break any tie votes.

Virginia General Assembly
Virginia General Assembly
Saslaw has not taken a position on the proposed mine. That, coupled with his leadership role among Democrats, has made him an important player to Virginia Uranium.

House Speaker Bill Howell ( R-Stafford) came in second among the legislators for contributions from the company, receiving $7,000.

The company also gave Gov. McDonnell $2,000 for his election campaign, $1000 for his inaugural party and $10,000 for his political action committee. McDonnell has lobbied the federal government to permit oil and gas drilling off the coast of Virginia and says he supports uranium mining as long as it is safe.

“It will be a tremendous number of jobs, tax revenues and opportunities,” McDonnell said in July on WNIS, a Norfolk radio station. The governor added that the state stood to “gain a lot by a safe and vibrant nuclear industry.”

Coles Jr. boasted of the governor’s support to a group of potential investors in London, England, according to a transcript of the February meeting.

“We have a new Republican governor in Virginia who has stated that he wants Virginia to be the energy producing capital of the East Coast,” Coles Jr. said in London “We have a big supporter in the state government there with Gov. McDonnell.”

Coles Sr. said in an interview that Virginia Uranium is awaiting the outcome of the study by the National Academy of Sciences. He adamantly denied to the Natural Resources News Service that anyone connected with the company had discussed sponsoring a bill to authorize mining with legislators. That is not what Coles Jr. told a group of potential investors on Wall Street in February.

“We went to the state legislature and said we’ve got to get these regulations adopted. The state said, ‘OK.’ So the state engaged the National Academy of Sciences to do a fresh study,” the younger Coles said. “We’re not sitting still while the NAS study is going on. In January of 2012, we will have a bill in the state legislature that directs the Department of Mineral, Mines and Energy to develop the regulations of uranium mining.”

When asked who would introduce the bill, Coles Jr. said, “We have a number of legislators who have offered.”

Last year, Virginia Uranium was the second largest gift giver to members of the General Assembly, spending $27,488. Executives took a senator out to lunch and flew three legislators to Bessines, France, to see a closed uranium mine that operated from 1948 to 1995. The company says it wanted the legislators to see it because it was a successful mining operation in an area with similar rainfall and population to Pittsylvania County.

On the trip were Sen. John C. Watkins (R-Chesterfield); Del. Onzlee Ware (D-Roanoke); and Sen. Frank Wagner (R-Va. Beach). All three serve on the Coal and Energy Commission’s subcommittee on uranium mining, which voted to move forward with a study of uranium mining in May 2009.

Virginia Uranium invited almost all 140 members of the General Assembly to visit Bessines in June, at a potential cost of about $10,000 each. The stay included three days in Paris with nothing on the agenda, according to The Washington Post. The 14 legislators who accepted went in two groups on two separate trips.

In September, a group 15 legislators, local officials and residents went to Saskatchewan, Canada, to visit a working mine and mill, at the company’s expense. The cost was $3,000 each. All of the legislators were facing reelection battles in early November and many said they felt uncomfortable accepting lavish trips.

State Sen. Frank M. Ruff (R-Mecklenberg), who opposes the mine, declined the trip to France. Ruff says that he thought it was extravagant and that he would be uncomfortable with the appearance. Ruff says he wanted to feel free to review the report from the National Academy of Sciences independently and come to his own conclusions.

“I would not want to appear compromised,” Ruff says.

House Democratic caucus chairman Kenneth Plum (Fairfax) also declined the company’s offer. He says he went on a family vacation to France and visited Bessines on his own.

“When I looked at the agenda for the trip it seemed to be heavily weighted toward entertainment as opposed to education,” Plum says. “I didn’t want to be in a position where I was accepting a gift from someone who might be trying to influence my decision.”

Larry Campbell, a Danville City Council member, accepted the company’s offer of a trip to Canada but then declined after talking to a constituent who opposes mining.

Campbell says he told her he was going to Canada with Virginia Uranium as a representative of the county, to which she replied, “’You have been bought.’” He says he told her that he had not been bought but decided immediately not to go.

“You have helped me make my decision,” he says he told his constituent.

But state Del. David Englin (D-Alexandria) says he and his wife took the trip to France because he thinks Virginia Uranium has a right to put its best case forward. As a leading environmentalist who opposes the mine, he says he wants to have all the information from both sides.

“I feel the information that I, as an environmentalist, was able to gain from the trip to help the environmentalist side of the discussion far outweighed any concerns about what my constituents would think,” Englin says.

Virginia Uranium spent $279,000 on lobbyists for the last four sessions of the General Assembly, according to state lobby disclosure records. The company now has 15 lobbyists from some of the state’s most powerful firms, including Heidi Abbott, Philip Boykin, Myles Louria and Whitt Clement from Hunton & Williams.

The law and lobbying firm was founded in Richmond in 1901 and has offices around the country and in Europe and Asia. Hunton & Williams boasts on its website that it is “the legal adviser of choice for business and industry on six continents.”

Clement is Walt Coles Sr.’s brother-in-law and got the ball rolling for Virginia Uranium in 2007 by getting a call for a study of uranium mining attached to an energy bill.

Sen. Wagner authored the bill and told The Virginian-Pilot he agreed to amend it because Clement, a former state delegate, was an old friend and colleague. The bill was enacted and signed by then Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine.

Clement was named one of the most influential political players in Virginia by Campaign and Elections magazine this year, according to the Hunton & Williams website.

Coles scoffs when asked whether the money Virginia Uranium has spent on lobbyists and legislators could give the impression that executives are trying to buy the results they want.

“Have you asked our opponents why they have lobbyists and why they raise money and pay money to the same people? Have you talked to any of these environmental groups that are against us like the Southern Environmental Law Center?” Coles asks. “They’re down there big. The Sierra Club — they’re down at the legislature every year. So is the Environmental Law Center. And they’re doing it year round. I don’t know anybody in the state of Virginia that doesn’t have a lobbyist.”

Four environmental groups — the Piedmont Environmental Council, the Southern Environmental Law Center, the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club and the Virginia League of Conservation Voters — are lobbying against the proposed mine. Together they have six staffers and one outside lobbyist who are working to defeat the mining proposal, according to interviews with the groups.

“My experience says their lobbyists have a lot more resources being thrown at them than we do,” J.R. Tolbert, assistant director of the Sierra Club, says. “You won’t find any of our folks taking people to France or Canada.”

Patrick Wales, project director for Virginia Uranium, conceded at the November forum in Richmond that the company’s 15 lobbyists are a strong presence at the General Assembly.

“We do have lobbyists and quite a few of them,” Wales said. “This is, unfortunately, — and I don’t like it anymore than anyone else — the way a lot of things are accomplished in Richmond.”

Virginia Uranium displays photos of Bessines, France, on its website. One shows rolling hills and lush forests running from an area that used to be a mine site, and a caption hails the “safe mining of Bessines.” Virginia Uranium executives say they wanted their guests to see how careful mining can leave the land intact. But mining in the Limousin area of France, which includes the small hamlet of Bessines, landed Cogema, then a huge French mining company, in criminal court.

Virginia Uranium executives say that Bessines has no environmental problems after 50 years of mining. Pittsylvania County, company executives say, is very similar to Bessines. The areas have similar temperatures and rainfall, and they even share the same primary agriculture products: dairy and beef cattle. Bessines is more heavily populated, the company says. The French hamlet has 171 people per square mile and Pittsylvania County has 64.

There is a starker difference, however, between the two sites. Bessines is not subject to the brutal weather that pummels Virginia. Between 1950 and 2006, more than 370 tornadoes and 29 hurricanes have struck Virginia, according to the state Department of Emergency Management. Another 29 nor’easters, intense winter storms that the department says are sometimes “explosive,” have hit the state.

Virginia Uranium showed legislators a lovely lake near Bessines and arranged for them to meet local residents and officials. Lawmakers say the mayor told them she thought uranium mining had been good for the area and  some local residents, whose relatives had worked in the mine, said they would like to have the industry back.

"Bessines, in France’s Limousin region, is a former uranium extraction site. Having ceased operations, it underwent an amazing rehabilitation through a quality initiative." Areva

Del. Plum, who visited Bessines without Virginia Uranium, says he wanted to avoid a “staged presentation.” Plum says he was struck by a lake in the area that surrounds the closed mine. It was fenced in and access was limited, he says. A guide told him that pieces of old mining equipment are stored at the bottom of lakes in Bessines.

“When the mine is closed up, that’s the way they dispose of the mining equipment. That’s my understanding from visiting there,” Plum says. “What it said to me is that uranium mining is not a one-time or a one-year or a couple-year concern. It’s a concern for decades and maybe centuries.”

In 1994, Cogema was shutting down its operations in Limousin. It had run 40 mines and two mills in the area for decades and the mines had been exhausted. The company would later merge and become Areva, a state-owned multinational conglomerate that is the world’s largest nuclear power company.

Local authorities asked for an assessment of the environmental impact of Coegma’s mining and milling on Limousin. They hired the Commission for Independent Research and Information about Radiation, a French anti-nuclear research group formed in the wake of the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. The group’s scientific laboratories are certified by France’s health minister.

The commission found that Cogema had failed to monitor the radioactive contamination of soils, rivers and air adequately. Radon, a carcinogen and byproduct of uranium, was in the air in public spaces at 30 times the normal level, the commission found. The study found that radioactive rocks and deposits were dumped into rivers and streams, and that river sediments and aquatic plants downstream of the mines were “seriously contaminated.”

The commission also found that 6 million tons of waste had been dumped into an open-pit mine near Bessines and another 8 million piled on slopes. The radioactivity in the area was 70 times that allowed in the most dangerous nuclear installations, according to the review.

It accused Cogema of “pollution, abandonment and dumping.”

In August 2002, a court magistrate in the Limoges Court brought a criminal case, although a public prosecutor fought to have it thrown out. In a case of numerous twist and turns, an appeals court ruled in March 2004 that the case could stand, issuing a 20-page ruling that found Cogema “did not adequately manage radioactive material” and used “only rudimentary techniques to prevent the dispersal of radioactive substances into the environment.” The court called the company’s actions “deliberate” because “it ignored reports of environmental pollution.”

European environmental groups hailed the decision, saying the French government had been lax in regulation of the uranium industry and had a vested interest in its growth. In October 2004, the court reversed itself and threw out the findings against Cogema.

Virginia Uranium also brought legislators, local officials and residents to visit the Eagle Point mine and Rabbit Lake mill in northern Saskatchewan, Canada, both among a group of mills and mines run by Cameco. The Canadian firm is the world’s largest publicly traded uranium company, and Eagle Point and Rabbit Lake are among the world’s largest mines and mills.

Virginia Uranium said the area is similar to Pittsylvania County and stands as an example of how good mining practices can leave an environment unscathed. Eagle Point mine is bordered by the 100-mile-long Wollaston Lake, a resort destination that boasts trophy-sized northern pike, lake trout, Arctic grayling and walleye.

The area around Eagle Point mine, however, is far more remote than Pittsylvania County and gets only a third of the rainfall. The Eagle Lake area gets 13.5 inches of rain a year, according to the Canadian weather service. Pittsylvania County averages 45 inches annually, according to the University of Virginia Climatology Office.

“Canadian operations appear to be a complete success,” Larry Aaron, a Pittsylvania County teacher who accepted Virginia Uranium’s trip to Saskatchewan, writes in a column for the local newspaper. “It is safer to work in a uranium mine than a Saskatoon government office,” Aaron says he was told by a mining regulator. Saskatoon is the most populous city in Saskatchewan, with an estimated population of 265,000.

Virginia Uranium’s guests were not briefed, however, on Cameco’s near disasters.

Among the close calls, in April 2003 the MacArthur River mine in Saskatchewan had a cave-in. A flood of radioactive waste threatened to swamp two of the lower floors. Employees worked to clean up the mess for three months until the mine reopened in July, according to news accounts.

In September the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission upbraided Cameco at a hearing on renewal of the mine’s license. Commission staffers said consultants had warned Cameco executives of the possibility of a cave-in due to the mine’s inadequate pumps. The Canadian Broadcasting Corp. reported that the company knew for months, if not years, that a cave-in was possible and that employees worked without proper ventilation while they cleaned up the mine. Steel emergency doors needed to secure the mine were left at another site and never put in, according to the CBC. Waste water was accidentally pumped into the clean-water line and workers were exposed to high levels of radon when they washed their hands or cleaned the floor.

Three years later, Cameco’s Cigar Lake mine suffered a massive flood. The company initially blamed the October 2006 flood on falling rocks but nuclear regulators concluded it was caused by blasting and, once again, the company’s failure to live up to promises to install adequate pumps.

Cigar Lake contains the world’s largest deposit of untapped high-grade uranium. The massive flood of 2006 delayed its opening until 2013.

On Oct. 23, 2006, miners blasting into the ground expected ice but hit ice water, and a short while later groundwater poured in at 396,000 gallons an hour, three times what the mine could handle, according to a Bloomberg report. It rose above the workers knees and with the water, came radiation. Workers were given respirators and were eventually evacuated.

Meanwhile in Virginia, the battle over uranium mining continues.

Coles Hill deposit
Coles Hill deposit