Uranium mining forces private choices


Take a look at this story from Natural Resources News Source, which investigates the background of the proposed uranium mining in Southside Virginia. The story behind Virginia Uranium, the company that aims to do the mining, is important in its own right. But I’m most fascinated by the first section, in which two local residents talk about their decisions to allow mining on their land, or not.

Having private landowners make this kind of choice is a very strange situation. The potential effects of mining–air and water pollution among them–would be problems for the region at large. Yet the gatekeepers of these common assets are put in a position of weighing their own economic interests against a somewhat abstract communal good.

One source in the story, Bill Speiden, sums it up thus: “It would be nice to become a millionaire off of the deal, but I couldn’t in good conscience risk my neighbors’ downstream water supply and clean air.”

How many of us would make that choice? How many of us could afford to?

I’m seeing a similar conundrum play out in the hydrofracking boom that’s come to my hometown in southwestern Pennsylvania. A neighbor of my dad’s signed a lease with the gas company, and now my dad’s formerly pastoral view contains an enormous gas well on a flattened ex-hilltop. Worse than the aesthetics are the threats to drinking water.

There’s a new well near my mom’s house, too. Drillers there are in the process of burning off the first portion of gas before they begin collecting the liquid gold. This means that every night, from my mom’s kitchen, a towering flame lights up the horizon, making a sound like a jet engine. It’s literally hellish.

Extractive industries are not good to live with. But for individual people, personal wealth can be an offer too good to refuse. When states allow companies to make that offer, they essentially guarantee the degradation of the wealth we hold in common.