VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) - Underneath the earth in Pittsylvania County, Va. sits a massive amount of uranium. In fact, it's the largest undeveloped uranium deposit in the nation. The uranium is concentrated underneath one Virginia man's farmland and it's worth billions of dollars.
Mining this natural resource would bring hundreds of high-paying jobs to Virginia, even fueling the Commonwealth for 75 years.
However, there's one problem. It boils down to the water Hampton Roads residents drink.
If mining in Pittsylvania County takes place, some worry a radioactive by-product could flow downstream and into local homes.
In the next few months, Virginia's General Assembly could overturn a 30-year ban on uranium mining. The move could bring a huge boom to the Commonwealth's economy.
On his Twitter account, Virginia Beach Mayor Will Sessoms posted a simple: "No to uranium mining" on Oct. 15. He cited to 10 On Your Side a frightening "what-if" scenario.
"This is radioactivity in your water," Sessoms said. "And I don't think we want our citizens drinking water that has radioactivity in it."
For Sessoms, it's all about the water that flows into Lake Gaston and in turn is pumped about 85 miles into hundreds thousands of homes.
"This is the water supply for Virginia Beach and a large part of Hampton Roads," Sessoms said. "I would suggest we never, and I repeat never, want to jeopardize our water supply."
The Mayor's worried about the by-product of uranium mining, called tailings. They're the sand-like substance left over after the uranium is milled. They're also radioactive.
If stored improperly an act of nature, like a storm or earthquake, could potentially send them back into the environment.
"If these tailings got into our water, it could be a devastating event for our region," Sessoms said.
Driving west along Route 58 from Hampton Roads, billboards are posted sharing the Mayor's sentiment to keep Virginia's ban on uranium mining. The many signs target Walter Coles' land in Pittsylvania County.
Coles is adamant that his decision to mine his own land is not about money.
"Farmers are not so aggressive in the financial sense as you may think," Coles said. "In fact, I was offered millions of dollars to sell this farm and move that house. And I turned it down."
He turned it down to start his own company, called Virginia Uranium Incorporated . It's backed by both U.S. and Canadian investors. Coles wants to control how the land would be mined. After all, this property has been in his family for five generations.
In the nearby town of Chatham, where not everyone is so comfortable with the thought of mining for uranium.
"It's scary, it is a scary thought not knowing what it could do to you," Chatham resident Patricia McClintock said.
Cynthia Brandt is from nearby Danville.
"I know the people that live in the county are really worried, concerned, about their health," Brandt said. "But they're also concerned about property value. I mean, who wants to live next to a uranium mine?"
Others look at the positives, like the potential of hundreds of high-paying jobs.
"These are what, 75, 100 thousand dollar a year jobs?" Stuart Brandt said. "Yeah, that would be a good thing."
For supporters, another positive would be energy independence. It was a pressing topic in the past election and one Virginia Uranium Inc. is focused heavily on.
"We import 100 percent of the uranium that we need here in Virginia to fuel our nuclear reactors and we import as a country over 90 percent of the uranium we need to fuel the 104 reactors around the country," Virginia Uranium Inc. Project Manager Patrick Wales said.
But with the potential for great reward, there is great risk involved. This is especially true for those living downstream in Hampton Roads. Wales says the best way to reduce that risk is to store the tailings underground, or "below-grade," and not in above-ground chambers.
"The public utilities director in the City of Virginia Beach has said, ‘Yeah, if the company does that... ' it significantly reduces, if not eliminates the concerns that they have," Wales said.
Sessoms agreed the below-grade option is safer.
"Perhaps we'd take that into consideration," Sessoms said.
Sessoms said there's no legislation guaranteeing the tailings must be buried, and even if there was, he worries it wouldn't be enforced.
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