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Southside Is Worth Caring About

By Greg L | 3 June 2013 | Virginia Politics | 17 Comments

During the last legislative session of the General Assembly we heard a lot about Uranium mining.  One side was talking about jobs in southside Virginia, the other talking about how mining could be dangerous, and most of here in Northern Virginia were mostly wondering why we were getting calls and mail pieces about the issue.  We’re about 200 miles away from Pittsylvania County.  Why would anyone be talking to us about this?  Why would someone in Manassas even care about what’s happening in a place like Chatham?

Last weekend I took a trip down there so I could find out.  Like many of my neighbors, I’m one of those transplants from somewhere else, another person who wasn’t blessed to live in Virginia by the default of being born here, but someone who made a conscious decision to move here because I figured out that Virginia was better than anyplace else on this side of the country.  That means I’m still happily discovering parts of the Commonwealth I haven’t encountered before.  It’s a huge state, very little of it is like Northern Virginia, and joyfully there’s always more to learn.

While a weekend saunter isn’t at all enough time to soak in everything worth learning, if you try a bit it’s not all that hard to find out why people from southside are reaching out to folks in other parts of the state for help.  The story made it worth pulling out a camera so I could share a bit of it with others.

A Future For Southside from NOVA Digital Films on Vimeo.

The actual unemployment rate in Pittsylvania county is over four times higher than it is here.  The average household income is about half as much as the average individual income in Northern Virginia.  While we moan about a few businesses closing here, in southside industrial ruins such as you can see in the video are all over the place that not only stand as a painful reminder to lost jobs, but haunt the landscape making whole towns look like they’re dying.  These are huge problems we don’t pay much attention to up here and they affect lives in ways we can hardly imagine.

Even up here we feel an impact, though.  We talk about how the transportation dollars we should be seeing invested here are getting spent elsewhere, but that’s largely a function of there just being hardly any tax dollars to be had in places like southside.  Our Northern Virginia tax dollars support public benefits that keep these communities alive, and state support of education, public works and other local government operations are about all that’s keeping these folks afloat.  Economic issues down there hit our pocketbooks too, and the huge pain they feel there gets translated into some degree of pain we have to feel up here.  If southside was economically healthy, not only would the lives of many hundreds of thousands of Virginians be dramatically better, but our tax bills up here would be lower and we’d be able to spend more of those tax dollars right here, instead of diverting them southward.

Uranium mining could significantly help the economy in a place like Pittsylvania County.  There’s about ten billion dollars worth of energy in the ground in just one single plot of land.  Governor McDonnell could deliver on his promise to support energy development across Virginia and establish the regulations needed to make those mining operations safe, and these folks could get to work.  To the extent that there are safety concerns, and I don’t think it’s unrealistic at all to have some concerns, regulations could be established that would address them.  It’s not as if no one has ever before done this safely.

These good people could have a future, and we could help make that happen for them.  It’s our state government that’s standing in the way between them and economic prosperity, the same state government that keeps promising us they’d stop being a roadblock to job creation and economic development in the Commonwealth.

That’s why someone like me, way up here 200 miles away from southside, should care about this.

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  1. Anon 13 said on 4 Jun 2013 at 6:53 am:
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    Thank you Greg. At one time this was something that was on the governors radar, not so much now. I am a longtime NoVa resident who went to college in Central Virginia. People who live in south and central Virginia are some of the hardest working people I know. Not only has the manufacturing sector been hit down there, so has the tobacco industry. Many of the families have for generations been tobacco farmers. They have been scrambling to transition to other products in hopes that they can make enough to keep their property.

    People in NoVa have been spared much of the hardship the economic “downturn” has produced. If you wonder why people in far reaching parts of the state are resentful of our whining, take a look at life in the southwest corner of VA. Environmental activists and political correctness have pushed many of these poor counties over the edge. Take a look also at the poverty and education statistics for counties such as Carroll, Wise, Wythe. These are proud people who truly wish to work and provide for themselves but are constantly having hurdles put up that block self sufficiency. Northern Virginians need to get their heads out of the clouds.

  2. James Young said on 4 Jun 2013 at 7:35 am:
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    I went to college in Southside, at Hampden-Sydney College. Lots of fine people there, people who deserve better than they’re getting from the environmentalist wackos.

  3. T2T said on 4 Jun 2013 at 7:43 am:
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    I’ve often kept my ears keyed to news from this part of the state. Thank you, Greg, for taking the the time to provide this great update on the status of that area of Virginia. Sadly, it appears that conditions haven’t been able to equalize a bit, but have instead, moved further along in the wrong direction.

    I have a feeling that if this mining proposal doesn’t key into place, and soon, it could really go nowhere fast. Faced with the prospect of Terry McAulifee as governor, I suspect he’d bring along the boiler plate standards of the federal level with respect to mining and EPA super-regulations which would virtually make even this dream of moving forward a complete impossibility.

    Back in the 2007 era, I remember there were some initiatives to get a few technical companies down into southwestern Virginia to set up shop so they could create better skilled options for local residents by placing call centers and help desks in that area. I’m not sure of the current status, but after some checking, it appears this might have fizzled out. These items were ushered in by former governors Mark Warner and Tim Kaine.

    Here was one such article that I was able to come up with that referenced this project, where Northrop Grumman and CGI-AMS was mentioned. It looks like this effort may have gone from a PR event to something that potentially never materialized. Link: http://www.sullivan-county.com/id5/grumman.htm

    Additionally, back in 2007, it appears there was a $135,000 grant established to provide for a consolidated area to list out these opportunities so that the residents could become aware of what higher skill, and higher paying jobs were available. However, sadly, it appears the site is no longer available. Link: http://returntoroots.org

    While it does appear some valid efforts and energy were attempted in this cases, I’m just not sure why it all fizzled out within 6 or 7 years, though.

    ~ An Active PWC Resident

  4. reasonable and rational said on 4 Jun 2013 at 8:24 am:
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    Just the facts..

    The potential health impacts of exposure to uranium and mining chemicals are well-documented in global studies of people working in and living near mines, and include lung cancer, bone cancer, leukemia, birth defects, weakened immune systems, hormone disruption, and damage to DNA, the kidneys and the liver.

    Virginia Beach, which gets its drinking water from Lake Gaston, downstream of the Coles Hill site, released a study concluding that a catastrophic failure of a uranium waste containment structure at the site could contaminate the city’s drinking water for as long as two years.

    Establishment of a uranium industry in southern Virginia would strangle efforts to diversify the region’s economy and threaten existing businesses–including agriculture, tourism, and recreational fisheries. As one study showed, the costs to Virginia in a worst-case disaster are almost double the benefits of the best-case economic scenario.

  5. Greg L said on 4 Jun 2013 at 10:01 am:
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    What I found fascinating after actually visiting the area was that the study by VB was based on a tailings containment structure that was never planned or located where the study said it was going to be. The plan is to locate the tailings containment below grade on a hilltop three miles from the nearest water. A catastrophic failure of the kind that study contemplated is physically impossible, so why study that scenario instead of basing the study on what is actually planned? Kinda makes me wonder if the point of it all was to support a conclusion that someone wanted to arrive at.

    I saw the site and looked at where things would happen and I can’t imagine that it is impossible to establish regulations that would make this activity safe. Concerned about an above grade tailings containment near a water source? Then say in the regs you can’t put on there. Say you can’t have an above-grade containment field. Require active monitoring so contamination could be detected early and dealt with. Saying it can’t be done safely in any circumstance because a study evaluating practices that aren’t even being considered might be dangerous is just silly.

    As for whether this would “stigmatize” southside and harm economic development, I don’t buy that at all. Five miles from Liberty University is a nuclear fuel reprocessing plant that enriches Uranium ore to reactor grade fuel. I haven’t seen anyone talking about Lynchburg being harmed by the nuclear industry.

  6. Anonymous said on 4 Jun 2013 at 11:58 am:
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    There are actually two uranium fuel fabrication facilities in Lynchburg, VA. One is owned by Babcock & Wilcox and fabricates fuel for US Navy nuclear aircraft carriers and submarines. The other, owned by Areva, also conducts fuel fabrication. They are two of six uranium fuel fabrication facilities in the United States (the other four are in NC, TN, WA, SC).

    Regarding the uranium mining, I read somewhere that the proposed process for extracting the uranium ore here in VA would be ISL (in-situ leaching). The ISL process is a process of drilling to the deposit and then fracturing the deposit with either explosives or hydraulics to create a pathway. The solution (usually sodium bicarbonate) is pumped down one hole, it dissolves the uranium ore, and is pumped up another hole for collection, transport, and processing. This is significant because ISL produces no tailings or waste rock. (For what it’s worth, 90% of the uranium mined in the US is obtained using ISL.)

  7. Greg L said on 4 Jun 2013 at 12:08 pm:
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    When I talked to the VUI folks they didn’t say they intended to use this in-situ leaching process, but to bring the ore up to the surface, mill it and leach it and then deposit part of the tailings back in the mine with the leftover in an above-grade containment on a hilltop close by. I’m pretty sure there’s some economic or practical reason for this, but I never asked them about that since I wasn’t familiar with the ISL process. It could be that the deposit being along the interface between granite and something softer the concern would be that they can’t be sure to extract all the leached solute.

    The deposits come right to the surface and extend down on about a 45 degree angle and that might have something to do with it as well.

  8. Anonymous said on 4 Jun 2013 at 12:24 pm:
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    Actually, you’re right - I went back and read the study http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=13266 (you can download the pdf for free) and it seems ISL might not be the most practical for VA. In the report, they cite the location of the uranium in hard rock as a reason.

    The first step is to actually draft regulations concerning uranium mining in VA. It seems that the GA is reluctant to do even that. Drafting regulations does not mean lifting the moratorium - that can be done in a separate step. What it does is ensure that if/when the moratorium is rescinded, the mining is performed in a safe, responsible manner (which is what the rational person would want regardless of the activity).

  9. Anonymous said on 5 Jun 2013 at 7:25 pm:
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    City of Manassas is hurting for money, ticket for 27 in a 25? Jesus already.

  10. Anonymous said on 5 Jun 2013 at 8:43 pm:
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    At least our last governor developed industry with the out of state trash and landfills! lol What has the current bozo done for the economy down there? Nothing. There are no more manufacturing jobs comming. Its time for these people down there to move on and do something else. The hispanic has come to nova in droves for work, why cant fat lazy redneck southside do the same? Worthless people living of our tax dollars.

  11. Kris Day said on 6 Jun 2013 at 12:58 pm:
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    Very interesting article and video, Greg. Thank you. I live in N. Virginia and haven’t had much opportunity to see the rest of the state, but whenever we did, it was worth a repeat visit. Matthews County, and Bath County come to mind and were truly wonderful. I don’t know anything about uranium production but I would hope there could be some way to bring jobs back to southwest Virgninia. If there is a safe way to do it then the state should facillitate it.

  12. Kris Day said on 6 Jun 2013 at 1:00 pm:
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    I’m sorry, that should have been Mathews County (only 1 ‘t’)

  13. DJRippert said on 10 Jun 2013 at 3:45 pm:
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    Communities have to keep pace. Once upon a time there was a vast fortune in coal under the hills of western Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, etc. The miners who went into the mines made decent money. If they were lucky enough to make it past the black lung and mining accidents they might have had a few good years in retirement.

    But now the coal is nearly exhausted and the communities are falling apart.


    Because they never did anything but mine coal. For a hundred years or more people mined coal to make a good living. But they didn’t invest in their communities. They didn’t diversify. Same with tobacco. In North Carolina the state legislature saw the end of tobacco back in the 1960s. What did they do? Built Research Triangle Park. De-regulated banking and turned Charlotte into a financial center. What did Virginia’s legislature do? Nothing. Nada. Zero. Zilch.

    I am not a transplant. I was born here. I went to school here. I know the history of the political elite in Richmond. It is a horrible, terrible, hapless, half-assed history. Over and over and over again Virginia had opportunities to prosper state-wide. But over and over and over again the Richmond business elite along with their bought and paid for legislature failed to act.

    Southside Virginia needs more than uranium. They need a state legislature that doesn’t suck out loud.

    How much money in special industry and company specific tax breaks does Virginia lose each year? Just capping the industry and company specific tax breaks at 5 years would net Virginia $2B per year. How many Research Triangle Parks can be built with $2B per year?

  14. Cynic said on 11 Jun 2013 at 9:07 pm:
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    Maybe an amendment can be attached to the current Amnesty Bill to help Southside. Funding some Studies and organizing a few Blue Ribbon Commissions and panels would also help.

  15. Jonathan Way said on 11 Jun 2013 at 9:17 pm:
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    As one of the few people who has actually managed and operated an underground uranium mine, I can assure you the risks of tailings management are significant, particularly in a wet environment. The notion of “re-injecting” the tailings is somewhat wishful thinking because of volume expansion during the milling process. Bottom line is be cautious and skeptical in what you wish for.

  16. Ace Pruitt said on 3 Jul 2013 at 12:19 pm:
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    Where is this hill you are talking about?

    Putting a tailing pond on top of a hill near Coles Hill would be interesting.

    At least 10 acres of a containment pond could be open, 4 such ponds could be open at the same time according to NRC.

    Modern mining in Finland, has their containment ponds on a hill, the modern ponds, design the same as Coles Hill, has wash over down the hill into several streams, plus if a pond on a hill in the area of Coles Hill, washes over, it will down the hill and ruin the hill side, this is illegal according to EPA

    So where is this hill? Is it a secret?

  17. Fat, lazy redneck Southside man said on 7 Jul 2013 at 1:22 am:
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    Hey Anonymous from 5 Jun 2013 at 8:43 p.m…. We “fat lazy rednecks from Southside” worked our asses off for years in hot factories that would kill you. When you’re 8 years into a 30 year mortage, and your factory permanently closes, you can’t just “move on to something else” like you can in Nova. There’s nothing left to move on to. If you were blessed enough to have a great paying job here, and it closes down, that’s the end of it. No questions. You have to scrape by on what you can until you can find something that pays less than half of what we normally make. No one is jumping at the chance to buy a house here. I don’t know how it is up there, but it’s kind of hard to take a hit like that down here. We can’t just let our house go back to the bank, ruin our credit, and expect to uproot our families and move and be able to make it somewhere else just like that. How are you going to find somewhere else to live with no credit because you leave your house that no one is going to buy? The Hispanics have no roots or attachments here, so it’s logical for them to migrate up there. It’s not our fault that manufacturing left and isn’t coming back. It’s hard… It’s damn hard! For a man to proudly be able to provide for his family for years, just to be reduced to nothing in the blink of an eye. To be dependent on his wife as the sole source of income. I worked in a factory because I hated school, but I went back to college at age 37 after I lost my job and make straight A’s now, because I’m not going to be stuck in the world of working 3 minimum wage jobs to provide for my family. I wouldn’t wish this circumstance on anyone. We are a resilient people here in Southside. We have each others backs when the chips are down, and we look out for our fellow man. I’ve paid my taxes the same as you since I started working at 16, and not once have I complained about having my tax dollars going to someone who is having a tough time in their life. So I apologize Mr. or Mrs. Northern Virginia, whoever you are, I’m sorry that because your tax dollars are coming down here where they are truly needed, that I’m preventing you from getting that slick new BMW you just had to have, while I’m here trying to explain to my two year old that he needs to drink water with his snack because we don’t have the extra money for a gallon of milk right now. So keep your damned tax dollars if it’s making your posh Nova life so much harder. We don’t need you. We’ll get by… We always do…

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