Monday, February 18, 2008

CHATHAM, Va. (AP) — You couldn’t say Walter Coles Sr. is sitting on a pot of gold.

Close, though.

The hundreds of acres of rolling Southside Virginia farmland owned by his family for five generations contain the largest unmined uranium deposit in the nation, worth an estimated $10 billion.

The existence of the deposit has been known since the 1980s, but a spike in the price of uranium has renewed interest in mining it. That is cause for hope by advocates in a region with an economy crippled by the loss of the textile and tobacco industries, and angst among residents who fear radiation contamination.

Mr. Coles and his partners have formed Virginia Uranium Inc., but they are not rushing to pull ore out of the ground and couldn’t even if they wanted to. Virginia has a moratorium on uranium mining that was imposed in 1983, when a company called Marline Uranium considered extracting the Pittsylvania ore.

It would be the first such enterprise on the East Coast if the company eventually is permitted to mine the ore at the site six miles northeast of Chatham, the 1,300-resident Pittsylvania County seat of Victorian homes that is on national and Virginia historic registers. The company has bought 2,000 neighboring acres, giving it a total of 3,000 acres.

The most that can happen any time soon is that the Virginia General Assembly session will approve a study of whether uranium mining can be conducted safely, and what controls are needed to protect the environment and residents.

That is what Mr. Coles wants, and he has offered to pay the bill, which could be $1 million.

“This project will never happen if it doesn’t have the support of the broader population of Virginia,” said Walter Coles Jr., who gave up an investment career in New York to help set up his father’s business. “This study is a way for the people to become educated and understand the issues.”

The elder Mr. Coles suggested the National Academy of Sciences as the best choice for a scientific analysis of the risks, and the bill sponsored by state Sen. Frank Wagner, Virginia Beach Republican, has been amended to specify that agency to conduct the study.

Virginia Uranium’s foes don’t mind a study, but they don’t think the state should conduct one in partnership with a private company.

“It taints the study. It taints the state,” said Jack Dunavant, chairman of Southside Concerned Citizens, which is leading the opposition.

The foes think the study should be performed by health care professionals who are knowledgeable about the effects of radiation, not theoretical scientists.

“Snake handlers are not afraid of snakes,” Mr. Dunavant said.

The Southside group was formed to fight Marline’s mining proposal in the 1980s. The focus then was anti-nuclear power, after the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania. Now, with nuclear power gaining renewed favor as oil prices have risen, the foes’ emphasis is on harm that could come to people’s health and the environment.

The Coleses acknowledge uranium mining’s links to cancer from operations in Western states in the 1950s and 1960s that operated with few controls. But they say regulations are more stringent and technology has improved in recent years to minimize the risk of harm both to miners and to the community from the radioactive dust that is left after uranium ore is milled and turned into yellowcake.

Opponents, 200 of whom turned out for a recent forum in South Boston, aren’t convinced. They are concerned that the fine dust, called tailings, will get into their air and water.

Mr. Dunavant is worried that radiation will contaminate the Banister River, which runs within five miles of the uranium site. Downstream, it flows behind his house in Halifax County and on into Kerr Lake and then Gaston Lake. It’s a source of drinking water for Virginia Beach, the state’s largest city with 435,000 residents.

One plan of attack is to persuade area governments to enact ordinances making companies responsible for environmental hazards they cause. The Halifax Town Council did so recently.

Marline withdrew in the 1980s not because the opposition drove it out but because the price of uranium fell. From a low of $7 a pound in 2003, the price has risen to $90 to $100, renewing interest in the 110 million pounds of ore on the Coles family property.

The elder Mr. Coles said he was somewhat taken aback, though, that opponents “felt that the only reason I was doing this was corporate greed.”

If money were his only interest he could have sold out, he said. Within the past two years, large corporations have offered him and his sister millions for the 900-acre property.

“They wanted to move my brick home down there that was built in 1810,” said Mr. Coles, who moved back to Pittsylvania about five years ago after two stints in the Army and a 30-year-career in the Foreign Service. “There was just no way that we were going to sell it.”

Mr. Coles and the neighboring Bowen family decided instead to form their own company and look into mining the ore, which is on the surface and is thought to reach a depth of 1,500 feet.

“Sure I’d like to make a little money off of it,” he said, but “we thought it would be a great asset to the community. So many people are essentially suffering today in this part of the country.”

So far, Virginia Uranium has 12 employees, but Mr. Coles expects it would hire 300 or more for a mining operation that would last about 30 years. The company has 31 Virginia investors. Mr. Coles hopes it will go public in six months to a year.

On a recent day, subcontractors were doing exploratory drilling in a cow pasture and cornfield near the Coles homeplace to confirm the size and characteristics of the deposit. The intense tick-tick-ticks of higher radiation levels rose and subsided on a digital monitor all over the property.

The company’s president and chief executive officer is Norman Reynolds, a geologist whose calculations led to the discovery of the deposit more than 25 years ago.

He is enjoying the opportunity “to come back to a project that’s near and dear to my heart,” he said, and is philosophical about the controversy his discovery has stirred.

“If you wanted to site a refinery here, there’d be the same outcry,” he said. “Nobody wants it, but everybody wants it. You know what I mean?”

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