On December 12, 2012, Ken Ferruccio and I attended the last of a series of “public hearings” on uranium mining in Virginia. I use quotations because the public was barred from speaking. Citizens were allowed to submit their questions on 3 x 5 cards, or they could later send them to the Virginia Uranium Working Group by email. A number of Chatham, Virginia, citizens, the community targeted for the largest uranium mine in the nation and one of the largest is the world, asked me before the meeting to request that officials change their format and allow people to speak. They know from past hearings that Ken and I are not afraid to speak out boldly on the issue.
Some in the community may surmise that our lack of fear comes from the fact that we are not from Chatham, Virginia, and as “outsiders” we have less to lose by speaking our minds frankly than those from the community. However, the truth is we are afraid not to speak out because we know from nearly thirty-five years of environmental justice advocacy experience that timidity and silence are what we really have to fear. Additionally, this is no time to be quiet since next month Virginia legislators are to make their decision as the whether or not to lift a thirty-year ban on uranium mining in their state.
If they lift the ban and begin the siting process at the Coles Hill uranium deposit near Chatham, the entire Roanoke River Basin all the way to the Atlantic Ocean will be threatened by radioactive contamination that is inevitable since containment of the massive amounts of mining tailings is an impossibility. Years of scientific evidence show that there is no way to successfully engineer toxic, hazardous, or radioactive waste containment systems in the short-run let alone the long-run — for tens of thousands of years.
The Roanoke River feeds Kerr and Gaston Lakes and provides drinking water to millions of Virginians and North Carolinians in small towns, counties, and municipalities as large as Virginia Beach. Already, Raleigh, is prepared to draw water from Kerr Lake in the event of droughts and if and when a growing population requires more water.
In addition to polluting groundwater and surface water, the mining operation would create radioactive air emissions that would travel wherever the wind blows, then rain down as precipitation, first poisoning Virginia and North Carolina, then spreading along the East Coast and across the Atlantic.
Just before the meeting began, a gentleman whom I did not know walked up to me and said, “I am from North Carolina, and you need to know that legislators were not at all happy about that first public hearing.” He was referring to the fact that Ken and I had arrived with numerous mining opposition signs that we passed out at a press conference before the meeting began, signs which sent visual messages that the cameras focused on. Also, he was referring to the fact that Ken and I told the news media that if due process failed, the pro-uranium forces could expect resistance, including demonstrations and civil disobedience. In some of the news coverage that followed the public hearing, mining opponents such as Ken and I were described as “wingnuts” and “eco-terrorists.” These characterizations made many government-connected mining opponents upset, including legislators who want to keep the ban on uranium mining , and we were warned that our radical position could hurt the opposition.
At the next public hearing that we attended, notices were posted on the entrance to the meeting hall that no signs would be permitted because of “public safety.” The irony of this notice is incredible, considering the fact that uranium mining in Virginia poses one of the greatest environmental threats the nation has ever faced.
So, when the December 12th hearing in Chatham began, prefacing my remarks with all due respect, I requested that the public be permitted to speak. My request was unequivocally denied, and the audience sat silent. When such a request was made in past environmental battles in which I have particiapted, the audience erupted in bursts of support, and because of the public pressure, the format of the meeting was changed, and the people were allowed to speak. At one EPA hearing, not only did each individual get to speak for five minutes (and none were stopped because they passed the five-minute limit), but nearly one-hundred people spoke, and officials were held until nearly 3:00 am. In this case, because citizens demanded the right to full public participation in the hearing, government officials realized that suppressing public sentiment would be worse than permitting it.
The fact that citizens were barred from speaking and that only written questions were addressed is only one aspect of the blatant tyrannical modus operandi of the Virginia Uranium Working Group. The questions were screened for “appropriateness”; what’s more, there was no way to know which questions had been submitted by the Uranium Working Group or by other public officials.
The disregard for the public was not just evidenced by the restricted agenda format. The actual positioning of officials revealed clearly Virginia government’s disregard for the people. As the audience sat facing large screens, a panel of members of the Virginia Uranium Working Group, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Virginia Department of Public Health and others sat at tables facing the screen with their backs to the audience. Virginia legislators who asked the panel questions were flanked to their right, and they, too, did not face the audience.
Ken and I sat in the front row, and I video-taped the hearing. After about an hour, I decided that I wanted to capture the way the room looked from the other side of the panel, so I got up, walked around the row of seated officials and began videotaping the room facing the officials and the audience. Within about thirty seconds, a policeman walked up to me and informed me that I could not videotape the meeting from that position. I did not resist and returned to videotaping the backs of officials as they spoke.
Clearly, officials wanted to avoid looking at the public, and they didn’t want their faces captured on film as they described the delusional science on which “best practice” uranium mining would be based. I am not surprised because who among us is comfortable with looking people in the eye as we are prevaricating, and who wants to have our prevaricating expressions captured on film?
After the findings of the Uranium Working Group were described, legislators asked questions, and then questions were read from the 3 x 5 cards. Mostly, what we learned is that containment designs for the 120 million tons of radioactive and toxic waste were not addressed in the report but will be addressed site by site if the ban on uranium mining is lifted. Among other topics that were discussed were monitoring and emergency management provisions.
Before we exited the hearing, I gave legislators copies of a press statement that Ken and I had sent to the North Carolina news media the day before and that we shared with press members and many citizens at the hearing that night. In this statement, we outlined the myths promoted by pro-uranium mining forces that need to be exploded; called upon the news media to do its job in covering both sides of the mining issue fully and equally, and asked the citizens to contact their legislators, as well as North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory and Governor Bob McDonnell, and to express that they oppose lifting the Virginia ban on uranium mining.