Vast uranium deposits in Virginia could make for extremely profitable mining. Opponents fiercely argue mining could lead to an environmental disaster, or water contamination. Lawmakers are expected to take the matter up in this session.
The rolling fields of Coles Hill were once full of tobacco. Along with furniture and textiles, the leaf sustained farmers, blue collar workers and families in this area of Virginia known as Southside.
All three industries are in decline now, and the region typically leads the state in unemployment. But something beneath the fields — something you can't see — could be Southside's salvation.
Uranium — enough to power every nuclear power plant in the U.S. for 2 1/2 years — lies under these fields where dozens of black-and-white Angus-Hereford beef cattle were grazing on a gray, drizzly winter day.
Geologist Patrick M. Wales walked the field's fence line with a Geiger counter to illustrate what hundreds of jobs sound like. He stooped to clear layers of wet leaves from a culvert, then cradled the detector in the middle of the trough he made. The instrument that had rhythmically clicked like a cicada seconds before now emitted a steady, piercing shriek.
The deposit runs deep, about 1,500 feet. "This is really one of the areas where it just happens to pop up to the surface," Wales said.
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