Quest for cheap dirty energy divides the Va. countryside


As President Obama launches into his second term, evidence abounds that he needs to re-focus his energy policy on how the government can do more to promote alternative sources of power — especially wind, solar and hydro. Other Western nations are increasingly banking on alternative energy — but here in the United States our approach has been a free-for-all for the cheapest energy possible, with little or no regard for the environmental or the health and safety of local residents.

Recently, I’ve been writing a lot about some manifestations of this “drill baby drill” mentality. We’ve seen what’s happening in Alaska, where an ill-advised off-shore oil drilling scheme threatens an environmental catastrophe. Then there’s the ongoing mess across regions like the Marcellus Shale, where virtually unregulated fracking has poisoned drinking water supplies and polluted the air.

Here’s a twist on that familiar storyline, out of Virginia. In this case, it’s an old-fashioned uranium rush, a plan to tear apart the Appalachian soil that is tearing apart communities as well:

 CHATHAM, Va. — In a landscape of rolling pastures and grazing cattle, Stewart East stepped from his pickup truck with a Geiger counter. He pointed it at a puddle filled by recent rains, and the instrument erupted in scratchy feedback.

“This is the top of the deposit,” said Mr. East, an employee of a company that wants to mine one of the largest lodes of uranium in the United States, which happens to be found here in southern Virginia.

A fight over whether to drill beneath the oak hedgerows, an undertaking that would yield 1,000 jobs and a bounty of tax revenue in addition to nuclear fuel, has divided the region. The bitterness is reflected in competing lawn signs that read “No Uranium Mining” and, on the other side of the road, “Stop whining. Start mining.” Now, after years of government reports and hundreds of thousands of dollars in political donations that included a trip to France for state lawmakers, the issue has reached the crucible of Virginia’s General Assembly.

This decision should be a no-brainer. Lawmakers already put the brakes on this proposal once before, after the scientists — the folks who know what they’re talking about — had weighed in:

A National Academy of Sciences report in 2011 stopped the momentum in last year’s General Assembly for lifting the ban, imposed three decades earlier in the wake of the Three Mile Island nuclear plant accident. The report warned of “steep hurdles” to safe mining and “significant human health” dangers if a capped tailings pile leaks because of the state’s “frequent storms.”

Still, some people get blinded by the dollar signs flashing in front of them. Look, the reality isn’t that complicated, and usually the easiest solution isn’t always the best one. The more that America focuses on clean, renewable sources of energy, the less we’ll be tearing small towns across the Heartland apart with the boom-and-bust cycle and the environmental degradation that comes from drilling. And it’s not too late for Virginia to set an example for the rest of us.

To learn more about the controversy over uranium mining in Virginia from the New York Times, please read:

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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