The threatened three: Local sites on SELC list of endangered places

A view of the countryside around Charlottesville, named by the SELC as one of the Southeast's most endangered places because of plans to build the Western Bypass around the city. Photo by Robert Llewellyn. A view of the countryside around Charlottesville, named by the SELC as one of the Southeast’s most endangered places because of plans to build the Western Bypass around the city. Photo by Robert Llewellyn.

Editor’s note: Guest columnist Cale Jaffe was recently named director of the Southern Environmental Law Center’s (SELC) Charlottesville office.

Maybe it’s just the buzz of Valentine’s Day in the air, but I can’t help reflecting on how easy it is to fall in love with Charlottesville. Whether it is camping in Shenandoah National Park, canoeing on the James, swimming at Sugar Hollow, or hiking along the Rivanna—we all have our favorite, local getaways. Of course, a lot of diligent work is needed to protect these and other special places throughout the Southeast.

Last week, the Southern Environmental Law Center released its fifth annual list of the Top 10 Endangered Places in the region. Unfortunately, three of the most endangered spots are right here in the Old Dominion.

The first, Southside Virginia, is home to the Roanoke River, which flows from the Blue Ridge Mountains all the way to North Carolina’s Outer Banks. The river supports a community reliant on tourism, agriculture, and high-tech companies drawn to the area because of a great quality of life. But all of that is in jeopardy due to one company’s proposal to mine uranium and store the radioactive waste in the watershed. State law currently prohibits uranium mining, but a controversial push is underway to repeal the ban. A National Academy of Sciences study validated our core concerns about managing all of that waste in an area susceptible to hurricanes and close to major population centers. Responding to that study, the General Assembly rejected this year’s effort to lift the ban. But the mining company is now lobbying the governor to push forward outside of the legislative process.

Next on the list are the rugged mountains of Southwest Virginia, where mountaintop removal coal mining is already destroying forests, streams, wildlife habitat, scenic beauty, and threatening Appalachian communities. One new mining project would be particularly destructive —the so-called Coalfields Expressway. Two coal companies are proposing to blast away mountaintops to extract coal along a 26-mile route. So far, the state’s analysis has not even mentioned the devastating impacts from coal mining. Instead, the Virginia Department of Transportation is treating this as a road, and planning to build a new highway on top of the flattened mine sites. But this is no simple highway project. This is strip mining on steroids. While the Department of Transportation is trying to fast-track the process, we are fighting for a comprehensive environmental analysis that looks at what the project would do to Virginia’s mountain landscapes.

Last, but never least, is Charlottesville, where our community is threatened by the proposed Western Bypass. Despite more cost-effective, less damaging alternatives, and strong public opposition, a $244 million bypass would leave a permanent scar on our local landscape. The Bypass—with all of its noise, asphalt, and air pollution —would run adjacent to six K-12 schools and a senior living facility. It would come close to the South Fork Rivanna Reservoir, bringing new threats to our drinking water. The northern terminus would dump traffic right at the entrance to the Forest Lakes South neighborhood, while the sprawling southern end would forever mar the scenic western approach to Charlottesville. Nothing could be more out of character for a community that takes pride in being one of the most beautiful places to live in the country.

So this Valentine’s Day, take your sweetheart someplace special. Visit the Virginia locales on our Top 10 list, which remain beautifully pristine. Then join us in working to keep them that way. —Cale Jaffe

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