The year was 1982, and this young Averett College graduate who had just walked across the stage to secure her bachelor’s degree in English/journalism was ready to set sail in her first full-time newspaper job at The Star-Tribune in Chatham.
Around the same time as my personal lifelong career adventure was beginning, big headlines were being made at a site northeast of Chatham in Pittsylvania County where this radioactive chemical element known as uranium had become a “big issue” after Marline Uranium announced plans to start the process of getting the very valuable ore out of the ground.
Almost 40 years ago, all that stood between owner Walter Coles and his $10 billion uranium find upstream from Halifax County residents was a newly implemented state moratorium.
Fast forward two and half decades to 2007, and this seasoned reporter/editor had started another job of choice at The Gazette-Virginian, where uranium once again was making big headlines with some of the same names and faces being called back into action.
The 2008 General Assembly session was only hours old when three Democrats and one Republican in the Senate co-sponsored Senate Bill 525 - a uranium mining study bill.
No one was really surprised when Rep. Sen. Frank W. Wagner of Virginia Beach tendered SB 525 -- co-sponsored by Democrat Sen. Phillip P. Puckett of Tazewell, Dem. Sen. Richard L. Saslaw of Springfield, Republican Sen. John C. Watkins of Midlothian and Democrat Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple of Arlington.
The bill called for the establishment of a 15-member executive branch commission to assess the risks and benefits of developing uranium resources in Virginia and was referred to the Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources.
Nagging at Southside Concerned Citizen Chairman Jack Dunavant was the make-up of the branch commission that would perform the study.
According to SB525, the commission would consist of six legislative members including two senators and four delegates, six non-legislative citizen members and three ex-officio members appointed by the governor.
“Six politicians and nine people appointed by a governor who is pro-uranium mining, come on, give me a break,” said Jack Dunavant who saw that study as merely an endorsement from the state for a deal that many believe was already done.
Uranium once again had become the big issue around here with the newly formed Virginia Uranium Inc. announcing its plans to mine the ore.
The Coles and Bowen families which owned adjoining property known as Coles Hill -- formed the company in 2007 in anticipation of retrieving from the ground the estimated 119 million pounds of uranium ore, estimated to be worth at least $10 billion back in 2008.
Norman (Norm) Reynolds, the former Marline president from the 1980 uranium era, was hired as chief executive to oversee company operations.
Again, the only thing standing between Virginia Uranium and the Coles Hill uranium mine, was that state ban.
And that’s the way many around here who have fought extremely hard over the years to keep that moratorium in place wanted it to stay.
They firmly believe uranium mining wastes will be dangerous for generations to come.
These milling leftovers, called tailings, contain radiation and heavy metals … not to mention the tailings can become dust blown about by the wind contaminating the air and groundwater as they release radon gas.
Experts in the dangers of uranium mining agree the tailings are what present the greatest hazard to human health and the environment.
For the past almost 40 years, Jack Dunavant has worked just as hard to keep the ore in the ground as Walter Coles has worked to get it out.
Both men are now in their 80s, and the convictions of both remain just as strong.
The long-time opponent of uranium mining strongly believes Halifax County residents should be concerned about this issue too – mainly because the uranium mine lies in the Banister River watershed with the potential for catastrophic environmental harm should anything go wrong at the mine site.
“What washes off this mountain of material or flushes up out of the ground is coming down into the Banister to pollute and poison one of our major sources of water,” he has repeatedly told county and state leaders and anyone else who will listen.
The board of supervisors also saw the potential negative health and environmental impacts and other serious problems associated with uranium mining back in 2008 when that board adopted a resolution supporting the continued moratorium on uranium mining.
But just as persistent have been proponents who maintain uranium will help reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil, but more importantly, locally it could create jobs and millions in investment and revenue in a depressed economy.
So where did all that leave the state of uranium mining in Southside Virginia?
In an uphill battle that made its way all the way to the United States Supreme Court last November when nine justices heard arguments in the case of Virginia Uranium v. Warren, with the company seeking to mine the ore arguing Virginia’s almost four-decade-old mining moratorium is illegal under the U.S. Constitution and federal law.
Fast forward seven months to June 17, 2019 – a day Jack Dunavant believes should become a significant celebrated holiday, because it was on that historical day the justices ruled 6-3 the moratorium on uranium mining should stay in place.
The majority found state legislators properly had used their powers and violated no federal laws when putting the ban into place in 1982.
So that’s where the highly controversial uranium mining issue stands today.
And this newspaper editor, who has followed the uranium story from day one for almost four decades, firmly believes, hopes and prays this is where this long-fought battle will end.
Only time will tell.