Last Monday, April 22nd, I participated in an Earth Day celebration at Vance-Granville Community College (VGCC), North Carolina, where people and organizations brought awareness to a multitude of environmental issues. I was asked to share information about why uranium mining in Virginia poses such a threat to Virginia, North Carolina, and states along the Eastern Seaboard.
The Earth Day celebration was outside. It was sunny, windy, cool, and the sky was clear, blue, and lovely. The students were animated and talkative, as they came in small groups between classes and during classes, some visiting the different exhibits as part of classroom assignments. As the students approached, I greeted them, saying in a deliberately friendly and casual way, “Good morning, or Hi!” Then I followed with a pause, and said brightly, “Would any of you like to be radioactive?”
Looking bewildered, they muttered and nodded, “NO!”
I continued my questioning. “Would you like to spend time in an oncology ward, or would you want your child to spend time there in the future?”
“Noooooo” they responded, “Duh!”
I surprised them with my candor, caught them off their guard with the bluntness and absurdity of my questions.
Of course, no one wants to be radioactive or to get cancer. The questions were self-evident, but they got the students’ attention, and that was my goal. The more the students listened, the more many of them wanted to know why a commercial, for-profit company should have the right to destroy the health, safety, and economic and environmental security of the public while the company would benefit from millions and even billions of dollars of profits.
I explained how international company and federal and state agencies are doing their best to convince Virginia legislators to lift a thirty-year ban on uranium mining, particularly targeting the largest deposit of uranium ore in North America near Chatham, Virginia, not far from the North Carolina border and at the headwaters of the Roanoke River Basin, including Kerr/Buggs Island and Gaston Lakes, which supply water to nearly two million residents in North Carolina and Virginia.
“Do you know why it’s inevitable that radioactivity would spread with the operation?” I asked. “Because it’s impossible to completely contain the radioactive pulverized rock dust that would spread in the wind and would become part of the rain. Did you know that pollution can travel in the wind in hours?”
“Can you believe that for every ton of uranium ore taken from the ground, only two pounds of uranium can be extracted? So that means that hundreds of millions of tons of 85% radioactive waste tailings dust would have to be disposed of and contained forever. And what right do we have to commit the resources of hundreds of future generations to attempt to keep radioactive waste contained for tens of thousands of years?”
I explained how radioactive and toxic contamination is inevitable and how government regulators know this, so they set a regulatory standard called the ALARA “as low as reasonably achievable” standard. This standard allows for “reasonable levels of contamination,” which also includes contamination of groundwater because plastic and clay liners leak just as landfills liners always do, and radioactive contaiminated waste water put on top of the tailings to mitigate the dust would evaporate into the air as well. The regulators work with the industry, so their definition of “reasonable” is clearly different from what the public deems reasonable.
“In fact,” I continued, “contamination is going to happen even under the best of circumstances, but that doesn’t include contamination caused by floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, and earthquakes, which often happen in this geographical location.”
“SO,” I said, “do you want to become part of the opposition? Do you want to help stop uranium mining? You can. Together we can stop uranium mining. The only power we do have is as a people united. There are so many organizations against uranium mining such as the Roanoke River Basin Association which represents towns, municipalities, counties, and businesses as well as organizations such as the Sierra Club. They need the backing of many ordinary, grassroots people.”
“We’ll be organizing events, and we will be needing you to attend so that North Carolina and Virginia legislators will see what the public sentiment is against uranium mining.” And when there comes a time when we need you to at a public forum or a rally, or to demonstrate, and/or protest, we will be calling on you if you want to become part of such history.”
As the discussions ended, numerous students said “yes” to my call for support and shared their contact information so that they can be contacted when education efforts and action are required.
As an educator who believes that knowledge is power, I appreciate the opportunity I had to speak to students and faculty at Vance-Granville Community College about the perils of uranium mining and the prospect of joining the political movement to convince Virginia legislators to pass a permanent ban on uranium mining. History is in the making, and when it comes to uranium mining, we, the people, must be the makers of history we want — not Virginia Energy Resources, not Virginia regulators, not the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.