Abandoned gold mines in Virginia; re-mining and reclamation

Nov 3, 2022 | Gold Mining

There are 447 documented abandoned gold mines in Virginia, and an estimated 500 undocumented, and they are all loaded with mercury, some with cyanide, arsenic, and other toxic materials. Many have numerous gaping and dangerous open shafts. There are some un-acknowledged superfund sites awaiting recognition. Our focus has been on stopping new industrial mining from getting started in Buckingham and Virginia. We would also like to see the existing mess cleaned up. This article includes:

  • Presentation & slide show: Legacy Gold Mines Provide an Opportunity to Produce Metals During Reclamation.  By David Spears, VADOE, and Paul Busch, Big Dawg Resources, LLC.
  • Virginia’s Former Gold Mines with Priority Level for Reclamation – PEC WebMap
  • An article promoting re-mining and reclamation of toxic abandoned mines

Scroll for details.

Photo above: Recent visit to the Moss gold mine, Goochland County, VA


SPEARS, David, Geology and Minerals Program, Virginia Department of Energy, 900 Natural Resources Dr Ste 500, Charlottesville, VA 22903-3171 and BUSCH Jr., P.M., Big Dawg Resources LLC, 5134 Cartersville Road, New Canton, VA 23123

Mr Spears made this presentation to the 2022 Geological Society of America (GSA) convention in Denver. Check out the informative slide show produced by David Spears and Paul Busch.

Unreclaimed abandoned hard rock mine sites pose environmental and public safety hazards but are increasingly viewed as potential sources of metals and critical minerals. The Gold-pyrite belt of Virginia, USA, hosted hundreds of mines that were active in the 19th and 20th centuries; all were abandoned before implementation of modern reclamation laws. These sites continue to contaminate waterways and cause problems for landowners and developers.
The densest concentration of abandoned gold mines is in western Goochland County, where Ordovician-age gold-bearing quartzite and schist of the uppermost Chopawamsic Formation are folded into an asymmetric synform. One of these, the Moss Mine, originally operated from 1836 – 1838 and from 1893-1936. Development included two inclined shafts, drifts at several levels, a jaw crusher, stamp mills, and gravity separation equipment. Final processing of the ore involved amalgamation of fine gold using mercury, much of which ended up in tailings, where it remained for decades. In the 1990s, waste piles were subject to rudimentary reclamation efforts, during which the material was spread over an acre or more. One small mining operation is now reclaiming the site and recovering gold, lead, and mercury.
Reprocessing of the old tailings begins with a reverse helix trommel to wash the soil and separate it from rock. The slurry from the trommel goes to a sluice to separate the larger particles of dense metals, then to gravity separation jigs. Rock goes to an impact crusher, from which fines go to the gravity separation jigs; coarser material is returned to the crusher. The jigs catch gold, lead, and mercury along with other dense fines; this material is then pumped to a wave table that further concentrates the metals. Mercury is retorted from the concentrate, then condensed and sent to a recycling facility.
In addition to the environmental benefit of removing mercury, fine gold amalgamated with mercury is being recovered. The potential for recovery of valuable metals may provide adequate incentive for private industry to reclaim some sites, but the need is much greater than current industry interest. A comprehensive inventory of legacy sites, mapping and analysis of associated waste, cooperation of regulators, and additional financial incentives would facilitate remediation efforts.

Check out the presentation HERE.

Virginia’s Former Gold Mines with Priority Level for Reclamation – PEC WebMap

In 2022, The Piedmont Environmental Council was proud to partner with student volunteers from UVA’s Clark Scholars program on a project to analyze the status of former gold mine sites throughout the Commonwealth. Using data pulled from the Virginia Department of Energy’, including its Mineral Mining online mapping interface, the students’ research enabled PEC to produce the new WebMap embedded below. Our interactive map shows the location of former gold mine sites in Virginia, and importantly, visually displays each mine site’s “OLAC ranking,” a measure of prioritization for reclamation based on site assessments and potential contamination (red corresponds to the highest priority for cleanup).

Piedmont Environmental Council follows the Vaucluse Mine/
Wilderness Crossing Development in Orange County

Update (4/8/2023)

Article dated March 14, 2023; Even after 18 months, it is still unclear what the applicant has planned for the 2,618 acres of land included in the Wilderness Crossing rezoning proposal — still un-remediated of toxic hazards from historic gold mining activities. The details have continued to change, and most recently, the number of homes has been reduced from 6,500 to 5,000 while the industrial square footage has increased by almost five times. Additionally, a variety of industrial uses, including data centers and warehouse/distribution centers, would now be allowed by-right.

An article dated October 25, 2022:    In addition to concerns about taxes, infrastructure (water and sewer), traffic, and habitat fragmentation, Wilderness Crossing is also the site of numerous unreclaimed gold mines—essentially, mines that have never been closed off and cleaned up of contaminants such as mercury, arsenic, cadmium and lead. The largest mine on the property, called the Vaucluse mine, has been documented by state inspectors as the site of extreme mercury contamination. Since it was never cleaned up, the tailings pit is likely still leaching toxic chemicals into Shotgun Hill Branch today and is an expected source of contamination in Wilderness Run, and ultimately, the Rapidan and Rappahannock rivers. PEC recommends that Orange County seriously consider how the toxic legacy of gold mining at this location could impact the health, safety and welfare of future residents and downstream communities.

To follow the drama, check out the many articles at Piedmont Environmental Council (PEC) Here.

Re-mining and reclaiming abandoned gold mines
& local zoning prohibitions on new gold mining

Cleaning up existing toxic contaminations from the many abandoned gold mines in Virginia needs to be well understood, and for actions to be taken. Care must be taken in making new laws and regulations for new metallic mining, to allow for and promote re-mining and reclamation in an effective and safe way. Read public comments HERE, submitted to the State Agency Committee on the study of the impacts of gold mining on Virginia. October 28, 2022.

Public comment forum for state gold mining study at Virginia Regulatory Town Hall.




WITT, Anne, HELLER, Matthew J., OCCHI, Marcie E. and SPEARS, David B., Virginia Department of Energy, Geology and Mineral Resources Program, 900 Natural Resources Drive, Suite 500, Charlottesville, VA 22903-7842

In 2021, Virginia Energy (serving as Virginia’s Geological Survey) delivered to the USGS National Cooperative Geologic Mapping Program updated statewide digital geologic maps for the Commonwealth. Previously, statewide geologic maps were produced at 1:500,000-scale in 1916, 1928, 1963, and 1993. This 2021 “born-digital” map product was completed using the USGS Geologic Map Schema (GeMS) geodatabase format and compiled at a nominal scale of 1:250,000.

In addition to bedrock contacts and map unit polygons, Virginia Energy also delivered derivative surficial map unit polygons. This is the first time that a comprehensive surficial geologic map was attempted at the statewide scale. Surficial units were identified using published geologic maps and interpreted using a compiled 10-meter resolution statewide LIDAR DEM assembled from 24 separate 1-to-5-meter LIDAR datasets generated between 2010 and 2019. Surficial units were digitized on-screen as part of the MapUnitOverlayPolys feature class at 1:24,000-scale. Over 7600 surficial features were digitized including alluvium, colluvium, fan deposits, river terraces, artificial fill, and Carolina Bays.

Significant effort was made to update coastlines along the Chesapeake Bay and inland rivers. These boundaries served as contacts for both the surficial units and bedrock units, and contributed to database topology. In the Coastal Plain Province, east of the Fall Zone, some surficial deposits also serve as map units on the bedrock geologic map (e.g. Miocene/Pliocene-aged terrace deposits). Whenever possible, surficial Coastal Plain units were migrated from geologic map unit polygons to surficial map units, exposing older bedrock units underneath in the final iteration of the bedrock polygons. Along with the statewide geologic map, the surficial geologic map is currently in review. Virginia Energy will publish these finalized datasets as part of our digital web map services in 2023.

Check out the presentation HERE.



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