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River at Risk – Drinking Water Threatened?

May 17, 2011

RICHMOND, Va. - The Roanoke River is number three on a list of endangered rivers put out annually by the conservation group American Rivers. The dubious distinction stems from a plan by a company called Virginia Uranium to get the state to overturn a 1982 ban on uranium mining so as to be able to work a deposit near Chatham.

Andrew Lester, who lives four miles from the site, worries about the tailings that would be stored above ground and subject to severe weather and possible earthquakes.

"It would go into the river system; it would pollute Kerr Lake, which is the second-largest man-made lake in North America, as well as Lake Gaston. Several cities up and down that corridor get water from there, and the risks are just too great."

Lester directs the Roanoke River Basin Commission, one of over 40 groups and localities in a growing coalition against uranium mining. The mining industry promises jobs and a boost to local economies. Uranium mining has never been done in the eastern United States.

Uranium is widely known to cause many health problems, including birth defects, kidney and lung diseases, and bone, liver and breast cancer. Lester says people living near the proposed mine are concerned that Virginia's wet climate and frequency of hurricanes and tornadoes would lead to contaminated drinking water.

"There's a little lady who lives up the road from me, 86 years old, she just flagged me down and said - she's a conservative Republican - she says, 'Are you going to let them do this? Are you going to let them do this to our community?' And that, to me, tells a story."

Lester says the firm pushing to end the ban on uranium mining suggests the mine near Chatham would create about 335 temporary jobs, and some 100 permanent positions. Lester claims the opposite will happen.

"It'll run away ten times that many jobs. In other words, a company who might move here would look at this area and say, 'Hey, they got uranium mining all around there; we don't want to be around uranium mining,' and then move to another location, or another state, or whatever."

The 410-mile Roanoke River Basin runs from the Blue Ridge mountains to the Outer Banks and provides drinking water for major cities like Virginia Beach and Hampton Roads, and the huge military bases nearby.

Mark Scheerer, Public News Service - VA