By Laura Lee Cascada, Buzzworthy Blogs
I’ve always been enthralled by water. Standing beneath a curtain of water cascading down a mountainside on a chilly morning is among the most invigorating experiences I’ve ever had. There is something magical about the way the water perpetually flows off a cliff, so fresh and crisp, before it meets the oily runoff from the towns below. Without water, clearly, we die. But without clean water, what becomes of our quality of life?
Perhaps this fascination—and this ultimate dependency—fueled my quest to become a crusader for clean water. This year, my journey landed me a job working with a powerful coalition supported by dozens of non-profits, local government entities, and citizens’ groups in the state of Virginia, all fighting that exact battle.
Virginia’s decades-old ban on uranium mining has come under attack by a foreign-owned company with its eyes on an unearthed deposit of ore in Southside Virginia. This company was recently revealed as the largest spender on lobbying in the state this past year at over $572,000. What these deceptive dollars hide is that under a predicted worst-case scenario of uranium mining, our state could be facing an $11 billion loss—nearly twice the predicted gain in the best-case scenario.
Virginia’s economy certainly depends on clean water, but even more so do our communities. Should legislators in Virginia decide in their 2014 session to allow mining to commence, processed “yellowcake” from the mining operation will be shipped out of state for enrichment. Left behind will be up to 29 million tons of waste containing radioactive material, which has been linked to kidney disease, cancers, leukemia, and birth defects. These “tailings” must be managed for centuries, and even using modern international best practices, there is virtually no regulatory experience mining uranium in a climate quite like Virginia’s, with its erratic weather and heavy storms. The National Academy of Sciences says there is no surefire way to mitigate all risks—and just one major catastrophe is all it would take to leave a toxic legacy behind for years.
For several weeks this summer, I spent my days writing e-mails, making calls, and helping to stir up media interest surrounding the screening of a new documentary called Hot Water, which takes a harrowing look at communities that have been ravaged by cancer in the aftermath of uranium mining in the American Southwest. Filmmaker Liz Rogers brought her crew down to Ground Zero in Virginia’s fight to film those who stand on the front lines, defending their homes and everything they know, for a special second edition of her film. At the premiere, I eagerly set up the red carpet and snapped photos of Liz, her family, and one of the new Virginia “stars,” Southside resident Sarah Dunavant, elegantly climbing out of their shining limo and entering the theater.
Fidgeting inside before the reel started spinning, I thought about what this fight really meant to me. Growing up, I became a little too familiar with cancer’s icy wrath. A good family friend perished from colon cancer during my childhood, followed by my grandfather from brain cancer. Years later, my grandmother passed away after cancer mercilessly ripped through several organs of her frail body. Within a couple years, my mother and aunt would also receive cancer diagnoses, yet thanks to modern medicine, they managed to eradicate the malignant cells.
These experiences somehow could not have prepared me for the gut-wrenching scenes that were to follow. There were interviews with people living alongside uranium mines who could not even count on both hands the number of brothers, sisters, mothers, aunts, and neighbors who had all succumbed to cancer. Liz’s crew filmed researchers taking measurements of radioactivity surrounding mines, including in waters that supply millions of people, and found astoundingly high levels. They even discovered old mining waste ponds that had little more than an unobtrusive plaque as a caveat, which surely would not be heeded by a young child yearning for a cool dip on a hot summer afternoon.
I live a simple life; I eat vegan, buy organic products, exercise fairly regularly, and passionately spurn cigarettes at every opportunity. These are choices I can make every day to ward off free radicals and prolong my healthy existence. Yet if a uranium mine is developed in my state, those of us residing even a hundred miles away, possibly completely oblivious, could suffer dire consequences without any choice if toxins leak out and trickle down into our water supply. Ensuring that our water sustains our lives instead of poisoning us is up to us as citizens, and it’s why our voices must trump those dangerous lobbying dollars.