OPINION: Uranium mining poses threat to Fairfax drinking water

Clean and safe drinking water is fundamental. And typically it’s a given—when was the last time you questioned the safety of your drinking water?

But sadly we are in the midst of a serious fight to protect our drinking water from significant health threats—both our surface waters’ like the Potomac and the Occoquan which are the source for our drinking water here in Fairfax, and groundwater sources that give water to rural communities not served by municipalities, like my family in Pittsylvania County.

For the last 31 years, these drinking water sources have been protected from the pollution threats of uranium mining. A ban was passed in 1982 by Virginia’s General Assembly and thankfully it is still in effect to this day.

It is important that this ban stay in place—it protects our drinking water and our public health from the damages of radioactive and toxic waste.

I grew up in Pittsylvania County and for the last few years I have been surrounded by the debate over whether a uranium mine should be allowed in my back yard.

Now that I am here at Mason I understand that the threats to Fairfax County from uranium mining are the same threats I’ve been learning about back home. This isn’t just a problem for people in Southside Virginia.

According to the Fairfax Water Authority’s Assessment of Potential Water Supply Impacts from Uranium Mining in Virginia, there are 16 former uranium mining leases in Fauquier County.

These localized areas of highly concentrated uranium are located upstream from us in both the Potomac and Occoquan watersheds.

There is a devastating history of uranium mining waste containment failures throughout the United States that have caused water contamination.

Fairfax Water recognizes that “leaking detention ponds, impoundment failure, and spills are the most common mechanisms that would enable untreated wastes to enter the environment.”

Radioactive and toxic contaminates are held in these waste ponds or waste facilities and include radium, uranium, thorium, arsenic, chromium, lead, and cadmium, amongst others.

The accidental release of these contaminates into the Potomac or Occoquan watersheds would be devastating to the water quality of Fairfax County, including the George Mason University community.

Fairfax Water’s report highlights a particular financial concern to the County: If a leak or discharge occurs, Fairfax Water or other stakeholders would have limited legal recourse because waste materials from mining and milling are exempt from the Clean Water Act.

Their report says, “For example, the Clean Water Act is not applicable to uranium mill discharges, and thus cannot be used as the authority to bring a suit against a mill owner.”

The County would be on its own to pay for clean up of any uranium waste that gets into our municipal drinking supply. That’s a big financial risk.

This pernicious history of uranium mining waste, paired with the fact that Fairfax is located in a region characterized by heavy precipitation, periodic extreme flooding, and the potential for landslides and earthquakes, demonstrates the public health and financial risk that lifting the ban on uranium mining could pose to those of us living and taking classes on campus as well as to every taxpayer in the county.

The contamination potential in the Potomac and Occoquan watersheds is significant enough to measurably impact source water for Fairfax County, including Mason.

This means residents and students could be put at risk to harmful health effects including cancer, birth defects, respiratory disease, and negative toxic effects on kidney function, bone development, and the formation of blood cells.

Furthermore, property values could decrease (as they are expected to do in the Pittsylvania County area), tourism could be impacted by a negative stigma effect, and agricultural production, including crops and livestock, could be polluted by contaminates in the water and land.

Fairfax County’s Environmental Quality Advisory Council recently passed a resolution asking the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors to follow in the footsteps of other government entities and take a stance supporting the ban on uranium mining in Virginia.

Last year, this same request was presented to the Board of Supervisors, but no action was taken.

This is an issue that is not going away.

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors should add to their legislative agenda support for Virginia’s uranium mining ban.

Also, if the administration and leaders within Mason expect to keep the best interests of our school community in mind, they should monitor this issue and strongly urge the Fairfax Board of Supervisors to take action to support maintaining the ban on uranium mining in Virginia.

Uranium mining is a growing threat, which, if allowed in our state, could place the livelihoods of students, faculty, and administration, as well as the future of Mason, at risk.

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