Roanoke River among America’s Most Endangered Rivers

Proposed uranium mine threatens water supply with radioactive pollution

May 17th, 2011

Peter Raabe, American Rivers, (919) 682-3500, [email protected]
Andrew Lester, Roanoke River Basin Association, (434) 250-1185, [email protected]
Cale Jaffe, Southern Environmental Law Center, (434) 977-4090, [email protected]
Chris Miller, Piedmont Environmental Council, (703) 507-5790, [email protected]

Virginia – Lifting a state-wide ban on uranium mining would threaten the Roanoke River and other rivers as well as drinking water supplies in the region with radioactive pollution and toxic chemicals, American Rivers said today.  The threat from a proposed uranium mine in the Roanoke basin earned the river a spot on the organization’s annual list of America’s Most Endangered Rivers™.

The Roanoke flows from the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia to North Carolina’s Outer Banks.  It provides drinking water to more than one million people in Virginia Beach, Norfolk and other communities.  Recently, Raleigh, North Carolina applied to tap 50 million gallons a day from the basin.

The dangers of extracting uranium ore, which requires intensive use of water and chemicals and leaves behind radioactive and contaminated waste, inspired the Virginia state legislature to place a ban on uranium mining in 1982. A uranium mining company is now pushing to lift the ban and develop a deposit on a tributary of the Roanoke in Pittsylvania County.  Geologists believe there are other deposits elsewhere in Virginia and the East. 

American Rivers says that if the Virginia legislature succumbs to industry pressure and fails to uphold its 30-year ban on uranium mining, the health of rivers and communities in the region will be at risk for centuries to come.  American Rivers and its partners called on the Virginia legislature to uphold its ban on uranium mining to protect the Roanoke and rivers statewide.

“This uranium operation would generate millions of tons of toxic, cancer-causing waste,” said Peter Raabe of American Rivers. “We’re talking about a radioactive legacy that would last for generations.”

“The Roanoke River, spawned on the Blue Ridge of Virginia and North Carolina, wanders through the  hills, farmland,  and communities of both states on its way to the ocean.  The region’s history, culture and future are forever bound to the river.  We are grateful to American Rivers for shining a national spotlight on this incredible resource and on the irrefutable threat from potential uranium mining, milling and waste disposal,” said Andrew Lester, executive director of the Roanoke River Basin Association.

“Virginia Uranium says  it will mine safely, just as BP said it would drill safely.  The lesson here is that things do not always go according to plan, and we  should not be playing high-stakes roulette with a waterway that serves local growers, local anglers and a vibrant tourist economy from Virginia Beach to the Outer Banks,”  said Cale Jaffe, senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center.

“The evidence that Virginia is subject to unusually heavy and concentrated rainfalls has continued to accumulate since the 1980′s, with several instances of more than 20 inches of rain in 24 hours. This characteristic of Virginia’s climate that caused so many local and state leaders concern in the 1980′s makes the engineering of liquid waste lagoons and radioactive soils to ensure no radioactive material is released exceptionally difficult.  Flooding and storm water discharge of radioactive material is a probability, not a possibility,” said Chris Miller, executive director of Piedmont Environmental Council.

The potential health impacts of exposure to uranium and mining chemicals are well-documented, and include cancer, birth defects, hormone disruption, and damage to vital organs. Developing a uranium industry in Virginia is considered especially risky because of the region’s high rainfall and frequently severe  hurricanes and storms (like the tornado that touched down April 17 just a few miles from the proposed mine site). Severe weather could result in wastewater contaminating rivers, streams, and drinking water supplies. 

“Virginia’s leaders demonstrated great foresight and moral courage when they banned uranium mining thirty years ago,” said Raabe. “The question now is whether they will continue to protect our clean water, or allow this mining company to create a poisonous future for the region’s communities.”

About America’s Most Endangered Rivers

For 26 years, American Rivers has sounded the alarm on 360 rivers through our America’s Most Endangered Rivers report.  The report is not a list of the “worst” or most polluted rivers, but is a call to action for rivers at a crossroads, whose fates will be determined in the coming year. Over the years, the report has helped spur many successes including the removal of outdated dams, the protection of rivers with Wild and Scenic designations, and the prevention of harmful development and pollution.

American Rivers’ staff and scientific advisors review nominations for the following criteria:

  • A major decision that the public can help influence in the coming year
  • The significance of the river to people and wildlife
  • The magnitude of the threat, especially in light of climate change

For the third consecutive year, America’s Most Endangered Rivers™ is sponsored by The Orvis Company, which donates 5% of their pre-tax profits annually to protect nature.


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About American Rivers

About American Rivers

American Rivers protects wild rivers, restores damaged rivers, and conserves clean water for people and nature. Since 1973, American Rivers has protected and restored more than 150,000 miles of rivers through advocacy efforts, on-the-ground projects, and the annual America’s Most Endangered Rivers® campaign. Headquartered in Washington, DC, American Rivers has offices across the country and more than 200,000 members, supporters, and volunteers.

Rivers connect us to each other, nature, and future generations. Find your connections at AmericanRivers.org, Facebook.com/AmericanRivers, and Twitter.com/AmericanRivers.