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Job one / September 23, 2010
Let’s be honest: The one thing that puts oomph into the campaign to mine uranium in Southside Virginia — aside, that is, from the special-interest pleading, the back-room dealing, and such — is the sad fact that the local economy is a mess, has been for some time, and now along comes a business enterprise that promises to put hundreds of people to work.

It’s certainly understandable why folks would be tempted by the proposition that Virginia Uranium Inc. is selling at the Coles Hill mine site near Chatham. In normal times, with a reasonably vibrant economy, I doubt many people would be interested in risking Southside’s birthright of open land, clean air and abundant water for the 30 pieces of silver that VUI is offering to the region. But with jobs scarce, and budgets tight, and everyone wondering what comes next, no wonder you hear peeps of doubt — more than peeps, really — from residents old and new who wonder if fighting the mine lobby is such a swell idea.

The sentiment is hardly unique to Southside. Just last week, The New Yorker magazine published a fascinating account of the southwestern Colorado town of Uravan — strike that, the former Colorado town of Uravan — and the uranium-rich region of Paradox that surrounds it. Uravan was a hub of uranium mining activity in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s; today the town no longer exists. Due to reckless mining practices, the land upon which Uravan stood has become so toxic “that everything in town — houses, streets, even the trees — had to be shredded and buried,” writes Peter Hessler in his piece, titled, ominously, “The Uranium Widows” (Sept. 13 edition).

So far, so good, if you fear mining here in Southside and are seeking affirmation for the point of view. But wait: The New Yorker article looks at the push to restart uranium mining in Paradox and finds residents there eager to embrace the industry. A company named Energy Fuels in 2007 “arrived with plans to build America’s first new uranium mill in almost thirty years, and the response in the Paradox region has been overwhelmingly positive,” writes Hessler.

The reference to uranium widows is no play on words — untold numbers of miners died or today are suffering from small-cell lung cancer as a result of breathing toxic air from the Uravan mine site half a century ago, and their widows, most still living in the region, don’t bother to deny it. “It was an accepted risk,” says one, “because they were earning a good living for their families.” Anyone looking for a stereotypical display of rugged Western individualism will find it in spades in Hessler’s piece: “The way I look at it, I wanted a job,” says one former miner, now in his 80s and missing half a lung, as he is quoted in the article. “I didn’t ask if I was going to get cancer — which I did. It was just one of those things.” There’s no blame assigned to the company that ran the mine, Union Carbide, and none intended.

You’ll find much more to ponder in the article, the full version of which unfortunately isn’t posted at The New Yorker website ( although the magazine should be available at local libraries. One recurring theme of the piece is likely familiar to anyone who knows anything about the social makeup of Chatham: The tension that exists near Paradox between working- and middle-class residents who favor the mining project and the environmentally-minded opposition that’s perceived to be, well, snobby, elite and unconcerned by the hard economic hand that’s been dealt to the rest of the region. Gary Fountain, rector of Chatham Hall, has encountered similar criticism for his outspoken opposition to VUI’s Pittsylvania project; easy for him, say the critics, when Fountain heads up a school that charges $39,000 annual tuition. In The New Yorker article, the actress Darryl Hannah plays the stock role as the (perceived) disinterested voice of the opposition: as owner of a home between Paradox and the Colorado ski community of Telluride, Hannah pops up long enough to describe local support for uranium mining as “mind-boggling.” A Telluride-based environmental group is suing to stop the mine, but “I recognize how patriarchal that can seem,” says Hilary White, director of the Sheep Mountain Alliance, in the article. “When you’re desperate, when you can’t afford to put food on your table, you’ll welcome people who don’t have your best interests at heart.”

The Colorado debate is relevant but hardly revelatory; what raises eyebrows about the piece is the tacit endorsement it offers for uranium mining. People interested in the Coles Hill project, pro and con, should read the New Yorker for a likely primer on the results of the National Academy of Sciences study of uranium mining that soon will be underway in the area. Hessler, the author, gives a great deal of credence to the locals— and many scientists — who say mining can be conducted safely at Paradox. “Even worst-case disasters reveal surprisingly small effects,” writes Hessler, going straight for the jugular, the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster in Russia. “In Chernobyl,” he writes, “dozens of emergency workers died after fighting the reactor fire, but the health impact on neighboring communities seems to be limited. After more than 20 years of extensive study, there is no consistent evidence of increased birth defects, leukemia, or most other radiation-related diseases.” (An exception is thyroid cancer, which occurs at above-normal rates in children who are naturally sensitive to radiation). Chenobyl is such an extreme example that it doesn’t lend itself to a fair comparison, Hessler notes, except to show that fears of uranium mining appear to be as overblown as industry supporters say it is.

Perhaps. But at the same time, if you read closely enough, you may perceive a less flattering observation, a threat actually, snaking its way through his piece: the sense of defeatism that makes Paradox residents so eager to welcome back the industry that literally ruined much of the area. For all his objectivity on matters of science and sociology, the writer makes it clear, albeit subtly, that he wants no part of anything Paradox is selling (or wants to sell). Interviewing George Glasier, founder and CEO of Energy Fuels, Hessler writes:

Now that the industry seemed ready to shift from obsessive cleanup to real production, Glasier hoped to get back in business. He still kept a chunk of ore and yellowcake in his home. “That’s fairly high-grade,” he said, handing me the rock. I didn’t open the jar.

Virginia Uranium wants to open the jar of large-scale mining in Southside Virginia, and it’s difficult to imagine anyone not already living in the region coming here to sample the contents. There’s a rather ridiculous, somewhat sad moment near the end of the piece in which a local Chamber of Commerce-type testifies at a public hearing that “uranium and tourism can co-exist.” (Hessler writes that such a statement “could only come from a region called Paradox.”) The possibility of tourism is this physically stunning area of Colorado died many years ago, hand-in-hand with the life spans of the men working the mines, while Telluride, an hour away, thrives untouched. Today Paradox’s best hope for prosperity, however fleeting, is to accept and embrace its fate as an environmental ghetto.

Will Southside make the same mistake? The better question may be, is the decision ours to make? I took away two things from The New Yorker article: one, business interests with the strong desire to mine uranium will be able to marshal evidence that it can be done safely; and two, the future of mining communities rest just as much with subjective opinion, which can be hard as a rock, as objective reality, which often gives way to changing assessments of what’s dangerous and what’s not. In the end, the woeful fate of Colorado’s Paradox region, with its plowed-under past and hardscrabble present — what might otherwise be called its socio-economic profile — speaks volumes about the wisdom of relying on a dirty, perception-challenged industry for a livelihood. The debate over uranium mining in Southside isn’t just about jobs and income for the next 20 years, it’s about the potential of changing the region forever.

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