About 200 million years ago, something strange happened in Pittsylvania County.
Next week, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments on what to do about that.
Technically, Virginia Uranium, Inc. v. Warren has nothing to do with the Mesozoic Era and everything to do with the classic (but more contemporary) struggle between state and federal governments. Virginia Uranium wants to mine a deposit of uranium found under farmland about 8.5 miles east of Chatham and says Virginia’s ban on uranium-mining violates the federal Atomic Energy Act. Virginia says that act applies only to uranium mines on federal lands, not private property. The Trump administration has weighed in on the side of the company.
Politically, this sets up a curious role reversal, with the conservative president arguing in favor of federal power and the liberal attorney general of Virginia arguing on behalf of state’s rights.
Here’s what probably won’t get addressed in the oral arguments Nov. 5: Just why is there uranium in Pittsylvania County anyway?
We’ve talked to two experts who have studied this deposit and their answer is the same: Nobody knows. In fact, this little patch of land known as Cole’s Hill is so geologically unique that scientists have come from all over the world to study it, uranium or no uranium.
Let’s rewind to the Triassic Period of the Mesozoic Era, a time when dinosaurs roamed the earth, content in their superiority. Pittsylvania County then wasn’t part of Virginia; it was part of Pangaea, a super-continent that was breaking up. The future North America went one way; the future Africa went another.
Jim Beard, curator of earth sciences at the Virginia Museum of Natural History in Martinsville, says to think of it this way: You have a sheet cake that spans two different trays. The trays pull apart in two different directions. The cake will break in two, but it won’t be a clean line. There will be lots of other cracks. One of those cracks ran through what is now Pittsylvania County. And it filled up with uranium.
Robert Bodnar, a geochemistry professor at Virginia Tech, says we don’t know why. One theory is that molten rock carrying uranium from elsewhere flowed into the Chatham Fault and deposited an unusual concentration of the radioactive ore at this one particular spot. The other theory is that the uranium was in molten rock that bubbled up from deep down in the earth.
Either way, the uranium is there — perhaps 119 million pounds of it buried beneath a patch of land no more than a mile in length. Scientifically, it’s fascinating because the geology of this uranium deposit doesn’t match any other in the world. Even if there was no uranium there, this would still be a fascinating site to geologists, Beard says, because it offers a glimpse into the break-up of Pangea.
The Coles family that owns the land — and has since the early 1800s — is perhaps less interested in the geology and more in the economy. By some measures, there’s $7 billion worth of uranium down there under their farmland, and they’d like to mine it.
Here’s where we need to pause for another science lesson. Beard and Bodnar, who have studied this deposit for decades now, point out that there’s uranium almost everywhere, just not in large quantities. “Most rocks contain a couple parts per million of uranium,” Beard says. There’s also radioactivity in lots of things. Brazil nuts contain radium, which is radioactive. Bananas contain potassium-40, which is radioactive. Your bones are radioactive. Cat litter is radioactive. Lots of things are radioactive, just at levels so low they don’t really matter. So a little bit of uranium is no big deal. A lot of it, though, is a different matter.
In the late 1970s, a Canadian company called Marline Uranium started looking for uranium up and down the East Coast. There are uranium mines in the American West and the Canadian province of Saskatchewan. Marline, though, had some theories that the geology of the East Coast might turn up some uranium deposits. Indeed, there were small deposits found in the 1950s near Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, and Sussex County, New Jersey. Then in the spring of 1979, Marline geologists were driving along the backroads of Southside Virginia, tracing the outlines of a Triassic Period basin, when suddenly their detectors went nuts.
The New Republic says what they found may be one of the ten richest uranium deposits in the world. They also found it in the same year as the accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor. Three years later, then-Gov. Charles Robb signed a moratorium on mining uranium in Virginia and the ban remains in place. After decades of trying to get the state to drop the ban, Virginia Uranium, Inc. decided in 2015 to sue. Lower courts have repeatedly dismissed the case, and now that’s what on appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Uranium advocates say uranium can be mined safely; opponents say it can’t. That’s not a question we’ll resolve here today. But we can, at least, dispel some misconceptions. The uranium under Cole’s Hill is not like glow-in-the-dark seams of coal that can be hacked out with a pick-axe. It’s microscopic bits of uranium embedded in other rocks. Once mined, the uranium would need to be processed out and distilled into something purer to be sold, either for fuel in nuclear plants or radiation therapy at cancer treatment centers. To proponents, that processing is a sign of how safe the stuff is; to opponents, who warn of radioactive waste, it’s just the opposite.
In any case, the original explorers went out of business without ever mining Cole’s Hill. Before Marline Uranium closed in the early 1990s, the company donated its core drillings to the Virginia Museum of Natural History —a gift to science. It was either that or dump the rocks out. “Core drillings” does not sufficiently convey the size of this gift. These are more than 7,000 boxes of rocks, some 35 tons worth, from hundreds of feet beneath the surface. Beard says scientists come from all over the world to study them. They’ve generated a half dozen scientific papers, perhaps 20 presentations at academic conferences and a least one doctoral dissertation. Beard says it’s the only core sample in the world that bores through one of the major Pangaea break-up faults. “Uranium is a fun and interesting problem but this documents the break-up of the super-continent in a way that is not documented anywhere else.”
For years to come, scientists will continue to troop to Southside Virginia to study those rocks no matter what the Supreme Court decides.