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A state divided: Uranium mining in Virginia?

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.

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Protesters hold a sign during a public information hearing of the Virginia Uranium Mining Working Group at the Science Museum of Virginia in Richmond, Va., in November. The richest known deposit of the radioactive ore in the U.S., located in Virginia, has caused controversy in the state.

Steve Helber/AP/File

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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.

The ore detected by the Geiger counter is the tip of an iceberg that is the largest known uranium deposit in the United States and among the largest in the world.

Now a company's bid to mine the 119 million pounds of the radioactive ore has churned up the political landscape in Virginia. Virginia's General Assembly is taking up the fiercely debated issue this session and it's a coin flip whether it will clear the way for the state to become the first on the East Coast to mine uranium.

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