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Uranium-mine proposal stirs controversy in rural Virginia town

Beneath the sandy soil that for generations has nourished tobacco crops rests a deposit of uranium that has divided this crossroads community. County officials and many landowners believe a proposed uranium mine could provide a much-needed boost for the area's rural economy. Residents who oppose the project are concerned that the mine would leave radioactive byproducts that could seep into surrounding ground water.

''We stand to lose so much,'' says Eloise Nenon, a member of a coalition of local residents opposed to uranium mining,''and how can you put a dollar figure on that?''

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Before digging can begin, however, the Virginia legislature must act on a study panel's recommendation to lift a state ban on uranium development. After three years of studies and public hearings, the state Uranium Administrative Group recently concluded that the radioactive ore can be mined if strict environmental standards are enacted.

The deposit here - 30 million tons of high-grade ore - is part of a vein of uranium stretching from North Carolina to the suburbs of Washington, D.C. The deposit was discovered in 1977 by Marline Uranium Corporation, which wants to mine it in a joint venture with a subsidiary of Union Carbide Corporation.

Opposition to the proposed mine was slow to develop here in Pittsylvania County, where the largest source of jobs and income, the tobacco industry, faces an uncertain future.

''It would mean a substantial economic boost,'' says county administrator Willian (Dan) Sleeper. ''Farmers are continuing to lose; when they drop tobacco, they're unemployed. Like any community, we need industry.''

Hundreds of landowners have signed mining leases in hopes of cashing in on a uranium boom.

Marline spokesmen say the United States needs uranium for energy self-sufficiency, an argument that strikes a responsive chord in a community that values independence. They say the deposit here, converted into nuclear fuel , is equivalent to 800 million barrels of oil.

''I think it's good for the nation,'' says Coy Frith, whose 785-acre farm straddles the deposit. ''I don't believe in being dependent on any foreign country. I think America should develop the energy we have right here.''

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Southside Concerned Citizens, a small but vocal group that has opposed every aspect of Marline's plan, asserts that Virginia's climate is unsuited for uranium mining. Mrs. Nenon says the area's wet climate will allow radioactive particles to find their way into ground water and the nearby Bannister River, which supplies drinking water for Halifax, a town downstream from the proposed mine.

Uranium has never been mined commercially east of the Mississippi River. The domestic industry is confined to arid regions of Texas, Colorado, and Wyoming.

Mrs. Nenon, noting that the mine is expected to operate for 13 years, says that the community will be ''left with a mountain of tailings for thousands of years.''

Marline plans to store tailings, the radioactive byproduct of the milling process, in a 220-acre area lined with clay. In discussions with landowners, company officials have stated that living next to a uranium operation would be little different from having a gravel pit next door.

''We are no different than other industries,'' says Marline vice-president John Yellich. ''Our industry is one in which radiation can be measured and monitored easily.''

After nearly four years of careful study of Marline's proposal by state agencies, a subcommittee of the Virginia General Assembly is in the process of drafting enabling legislation. Early drafts of the bill include strict ground- and surface-water standards. Marline is lobbying to modify the guidelines.

Leading the environmental lobby in Richmond has been the Piedmont Environmental Council, based in Warrentown, 200 miles north of Sheva. Georgia Herbert, a PEC lawyer, says no state study has shown that uranium can be mined safely in Virginia. Her group is concerned that if the industry is granted a toehold in Pittsylvania County, it will eventually spread to other parts of the state.

But the Marline proposal has other hurdles to clear besides those in Virginia. Market trends do not favor the start-up of new uranium-mining operations. Many uranium mines in the West have been shut down because of setbacks to the nuclear-power industry in recent years.

Marline officials say they expect the nuclear industry to rebound in the early 1990s, and the company hopes to have its mining operation here ready to deliver uranium.

Coy Frith hopes so, too. He's convinced that uranium will one day be mined on his land.

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