Uranium mining and milling in Southside Virginia could deliver significant economic benefits but could also have a severe environmental impact on air, water and soil, a state-commissioned study concluded Wednesday.
A company proposing to mine one of the world's largest deposits of the radioactive ore in Virginia embraced the study's positive findings, while opponents said the report was far from definitive. Uranium mining is banned in Virginia but could be considered in the 2012 session of the General Assembly.
The study's starkly divergent visions were outlined in four scenarios, ranging from minimal environmental impacts and a big economic payoff to contamination exceeding current federal standards and an economic downside far exceeding any benefits.
The 179-page study by Chmura Economics & Analytics identified what it called a more likely scenario involving a moderate environmental impact, "based on extensive federal regulations" and advances in technology. The majority of the report is based on that scenario.
Still, the study adds, "Chmura cannot model or predict the likelihood that these assumptions will hold true for the entire time the Coles Hill site is in existence."
Virginia Uranium Inc. wants to mine a 119-million-pound deposit of the radioactive ore at Coles Hill, which is in Chatham near the North Carolina state line. It is the world's seventh largest known deposit.
"The study clearly demonstrates the enormous positive economic impact our project will have on businesses, families and communities throughout the Southside region and validates what our company has been all about from the very beginning," Patrick Wales, Virginia Uranium's project manager, said in a statement.
The executive director of the Roanoke River Basin Association, which opposes mining, called the report thorough but open to interpretation.
"If it's not definitive, it doesn't give us sufficient grounds to lift the moratorium," Andrew Lester said. "They can't guarantee any of those scenarios."
Opponents of mining and milling -- the separation of the ore from rock and the radioactive waste it creates -- have said Virginia's wet, hurricane-prone climate is not suitable for uranium mining. They say it would threaten water supplies locally and in Hampton Roads.
The $200,000 report was commissioned by a legislative commission and is likely to be studied by legislators if the General Assembly considers ending a 30-year ban on uranium mining in Virginia.
Another study by the National Academy of Sciences on the statewide impact of uranium mining is expected to be released any day. That study is expected to be critical in any General Assembly debate on lifting the ban. It will not recommend an action on the ban, and like the Chmura report could be subject to interpretation.
The Chmura report found that under the mining project's 35-year lifespan, the operation would support more than 1,000 jobs, including those directly related to mining and milling and the jobs created by economic activity and increased household income.
The mining operation would have a positive economic impact of approximately $135 million and would generate nearly $5 billion in revenue for Virginia firms.
Chmura said those economic projections hinge on the Coles Hill site operating for 35 years and being decommissioned under existing federal guidelines.
Under the two scenarios outlined by Chmura, including the baseline scenario it deems most likely, "the net economic impact for Pittsylvania County as well as for Virginia is clearly substantial and positive."
The more stark scenarios forecast severe or significant environmental impacts and diminishing economic benefits. In the worst-case, mining and milling would "unambiguously" deliver a negative economic impact.
The report also finds that the perception of uranium mining could be more costly than any environmental cleanup in terms of the "potential negative stigma" involving agriculture, tourism and other industries.
Steve Szkotak can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sszkotakap.
Chmura Economics & Analyticals: http://www.chmuraecon.com/
Keep the Ban Coalition: http://www.keeptheban.org
Virginia Uranium Inc.: http://www.virginiauranium.com/