Gold Mining in Virginia
Potential mining threatens the Commonwealth's water.
Gold mining has a long history in Virginia, with the state keeping records beginning in the early 1800s. While the last gold-producing mine closed in Spotsylvania County in 1947, the impacts of these legacy mines are still felt today, with contamination – in the form of toxic chemicals used, such as mercury, and long-term acid mine drainage – still polluting our waters. A recent study of gold mines in the U.S. found that 100% of the mines studied experienced an accidental release of hazardous materials.
Now we are facing the potential for these hazards that come along with hosting a dangerous industrial activity like gold mining as companies seek to find what gold may be left in the state.
More than 75 years after gold mining ceased in Virginia, a Canadian mineral exploration company, Aston Bay Holdings Ltd., has started exploratory gold drilling in Buckingham County. In 2019, it expanded its search for metals into additional localities in the Commonwealth, including Pittsylvania and Campbell Counties.
Local communities threatened by the possibility of mining and environmental groups have jumped into action – speaking with experts from across the country to learn more about the industry and its risks to our drinking water and public health, as well as identifying significant gaps in Virginia’s laws related to gold and metals mining.
What are the risks?
The environmental and public health impacts from gold mines in the U.S. are well-known and widely documented. Damage typically occurs through hazardous leaks, spills, and accidents; acid mine drainage; and airborne pollutants.
Cyanide is used to extract over 90% of gold mined in the U.S.
Acid mine drainage threatens human health.
Wastewater spills contaminate waterways.
Air pollution can also lead to ongoing and chronic health issues for those living near mines. Gold mining generates dust and airborne pollutants that are carried by wind into surrounding communities. Soil contaminated with toxic metals poses a substantial risk to small children, who are more likely to accidentally ingest these metals and are physiologically more vulnerable to metal poisoning.
A cautionary tale
As Virginians and state agencies decide whether gold mining should have a place in our communities, South Carolina serves as a cautionary tale, with a long history of gold mines putting illegal amounts of cyanide, mercury, and thallium into the air and water.
In 1990, following large rainstorms, a dam broke at the Brewer gold mine just outside Jefferson, South Carolina. This failure caused more than 10 million gallons of cyanide solution to escape into Little Fork Creek. The creek and Lynches River experienced a fish kill that persisted for nearly 50 miles downstream. Later, acid mine drainage from several seeps threatened the same creek. When the gold mining company abandoned the site in 1999, the federal government was forced to step in, declaring the mine a Superfund Site. Expensive work to try to clean up the mine will be necessary for decades – if not centuries into the future, saddling generations of South Carolinians with the burden left behind by a gold mining company.
A toxic legacy
Hundreds of abandoned gold mines dot Virginia’s gold-pyrite belt and beyond – meaning unknown toxic legacies exist from Halifax to Fairfax. These mines were dug and worked prior to Virginia’s modern clean water and clean air laws and regulations. The Vaucluse Mine in Orange, Virginia illustrates the long-lasting damage that gold mines can have on communities and ecosystems decades after shut-down. Gold was mined from the 1830s through the 1930s by various companies and produced a large quantity of Virginia’s gold. The legacy mine has large open pits and small caved pits – physical remnants of its old mining operation. A 1988 report from Virginia’s agency overseeing mining (now called Virginia’s Department of Energy) noted severe environmental harm at the site, including mercury contamination in stream sediments and “extremely acidic” mine drainage. The state agency report recommended investigation into whether the site should become a Superfund site – federally designated for priority clean up. Reclamation of the site has not occurred – mercury contamination and acid mine drainage remain.
Virginia’s legacy mines are not remote outposts far from humans. Communities and homes are in the proximity of the mines. In fact, Orange County is currently considering whether to allow rezoning of the Vaucluse mining site so that 5,000 or more residential units can be developed. Organizations working in the County are raising concerns about the site’s legacy contamination and its public health and safety risks.
Virginia at a crossroads
Virginia is at a crossroads now as local communities fight to protect themselves from the public health hazards of gold mining. HB2213, passed during the 2021 General Assembly Session, directs the Secretary of Natural Resources, the Secretary of Health and Human Resources, and the Secretary of Commerce and Trade to establish a work group to study the mining and processing of gold in the Commonwealth. The bill requires the workgroup to evaluate the impacts of gold mining on public health and safety; evaluate whether existing air and water quality regulations are sufficient to protect air and water quality from the mining and processing of gold; and evaluate whether existing bonding, reclamation, closure, and long-term monitoring of sites for such mining or processing are sufficient. Findings must be reported to the Department of Energy by Dec. 1, 2022.
Even prior to the study’s findings being released, it is clear that the state lacks adequate regulatory protections.
We already know that Virginia’s regulatory protections for communities – both local and downstream – and for the environment are woefully inadequate with respect to industrial gold mining. Right now, the impacts and risks are just too great for millions of VirginiansCarroll Courtenay, staff attorney in SELC’s Charlottesville office
Learn more about efforts to protect Virginians from industrial metals mining: