In 2020, Buckingham County residents discovered that a mineral exploration company, Aston Bay, had been performing exploratory drilling for gold in their county since the previous year.
Why had Aston Bay looked to Virginia as a prospecting location for new, large-scale gold mining operations? First, Virginia has historically contained gold, and is home to a legacy of abandoned small-scale gold mines dotting the Gold-Pyrite Belt, a volcanic-plutonic belt that stretches from Fairfax County south to Appomattox County. Second, Aston Bay found the commonwealth’s lack of existing regulations, including “no drill permitting required” on private land, appealing. This led Buckingham residents to sound an alarm statewide about this potential new industry and its possible threats to water, air, the environment and local populations.
Those advocacy efforts led to passage of a bill sponsored by Del. Elizabeth Guzman, D-Prince WIlliam, in 2021 that required the state conduct a study of the potential impacts from large-scale gold mining.
As requested by the Virginia General Assembly, the law has resulted in recent reports by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) and a state committee formed by the Department of Energy, Department of Environmental Quality and the Virginia Department of Health. Both reports found that Virginia’s current regulatory system is not adequate to protect Virginians, our communities or our environment from the impacts of large-scale gold mining.
The NASEM report calls for updating Virginia’s laws and regulatory framework to minimize the potential damage to air quality and water quality, cumulative health impacts and possible catastrophic events from gold mining. However, Virginians should be asking themselves whether even the strongest regulations would provide enough protection. In its report, NASEM acknowledged that even with a robust regulatory framework, “the risk of adverse impacts cannot be completely eliminated.”
The sad truth is that regulations have often failed to protect people and places from the consequences of mining and other resource extraction. Just ask anyone living in the shadow of a coal mine that still hasn’t been restored despite regulatory requirements to do so, or those living along the Mountain Valley Pipeline route, where hundreds of water quality violations have occurred.
A close look at the potential impacts from large-scale gold mining outlined in the studies should lead to the conclusion that the risks are too great to allow this type of mining to happen in Virginia — especially since likely areas for large-scale gold mining would threaten the James River and its watershed, risking the drinking water supply for 2.7 million people.
What are the risks of gold mining in Virginia? The greatest risk is probably to Virginia’s waterways, including existing risks from mercury contamination from historic gold-mining operations and the potential for catastrophic failures of dams holding back toxic slurry from new gold-processing operations, which are much larger in scale and size.
The massive gold-mining operations being contemplated extract minute fractions of gold from the rock they dig up — fractions as small as .03 ounces of gold per ton of rock — by pulverizing it and spraying huge piles of ore with a cyanide solution that leaches out any gold.
Once the valuable minerals are removed, the toxic sludge is pumped into tailings ponds. Arsenic from these ponds can leak into the groundwater. Failure of the dams holding back the sludge could result in hundreds of thousands of tons of poisonous waste being released, threatening nearby residents and waterways. Exposed minerals from digging the pits can cause acid mine drainage — a problem also associated with coal mining that regulations have long failed to address adequately. Acid mine drainage requires expensive, ongoing treatment more or less in perpetuity. Left untreated, it turns water rust-orange, and it can kill fish and aquatic insects.
In addition to acid mine drainage, other elements can be released into the water from mining activity: arsenic, cadmium, lead, mercury, thallium and other toxic metals. The explosives used in exploration and mining can elevate nitrates in local waterways, causing toxic algae blooms and other issues. Processing the ore requires huge amounts of water, which could draw down the water table and dry up nearby wells. Groundwater also must be pumped out of the huge mining pits, potentially leading to additional types of contamination.
In short, large-scale gold mining in Virginia has all the makings of an environmental disaster. As emphasized in the results of both reports, it would risk the drinking water of millions while causing long-term environmental harm and endangering public health.
Do we want to trust regulations to protect us from all that, or should we just say “no thanks” to large-scale gold mining in Virginia?
Jessica Sims is a Virginia field coordinator with the nonprofit Appalachian Voices. Contact her at email@example.com.
Read or listen to the article published by the Richmond Times Dispatch, January 7, 2023.
Or read PDF 1 of 2 here and read 2 of 2 here.
I am so sick of these environmentalists stopping anything that might advance in any way our ability to gain substances from the Earth, yet they are perfectly ok with mining for uranium in Africa, for electric car batteries, as long as it is not in the United States. Even the oil-rich Arab nations should tell Americans to go pound sand since we are sitting on millions and millions of barrels of oil right here in the country. Take your crap and sell it someplace else, most Americans, and most Virginians do not agree with you. YOU go talk to some of the angry people who live in coal country in far Southwest Virginia about how they feel about coal mines being shut down. If you really get out and talk to people, you will see that you theory does not hold up. Appalachian Voices is just another radical right wing operation that is against anything that is for betterment of the state. Environmentalism be damned.
We disagree with your assessment. Would you care to explore another very different view? Check out Friends of Buckingham website, especially the gold mining page. You will find a wealth of information that counters your statements.
Mining has essentially been lawless for most of its very long history. Thus it is very hard to turn that catastrophic history around. We are so busy fending off these very heavy polluters and community destroyers. It is in recent years that good people are trying to reign in the destructive forces of this industry. And, yes, the issue of renewable energy requiring massive extraction is a vexing problem, that must be addressed. From the frying pan into the fire! We are killing our planet to save it? And its always the indigenous, and communities of low wealth and color that are the accepted sacrifice zones for the benefit us who live far away from extraction zones. We are conflicted about that. AND we know that we must contribute to reforming this broken system.
Oh contraire that most Americans/Virginians do not agree with us – we gathered nearly 1000 signatures for our petition in Buckingham to support a rights-based ordinance to stop metallic mining. We did not have to sell our mission to stop metallic mining – most folks had knee jerk reactions – they know how bad gold mining is, and they don’t want it in their community… or elsewhere.
And – Appalachian Voices – is right wing? Did you mean to say left wing? Regardless, they are non-partisan. Check them out – they do fabulous work for ALL of us. https://appvoices.org/
It sounds like you are upset – but What are you doing to help clean up this very messy world? Would u consider using your anger to help us all out? Thanks for caring and listening.
The past failures to require restoration of mined land does not speak well for the future enforcement of any new laws that would protect our environment. I hope that we are not in a situation where “money talks” and our elected officials do not listen to the citizens of this state. I have had first hand observation of the destruction of one of our waterways after Hercules Corp. spilled toxic waste into Tye River. The entire river turned red and every type of fish and insect was wiped out. It stayed that way for years. The Hercules response was “it was an accident”. We do not need any more “accidents” effecting our environment.
Very well said. I agree with you 💯.
To Compare Gold Mining to the Mountain Vally Pipeline is a Fraudulent comparison. You think this is bad try living next to a Wind Turbine. The Wind Turbine Industry is changing the Weather Systems that is being blamed on “Global Warming”. Todays Science is not to be trusted.
Hello James. Thanks for taking the time to comment. We don’t agree with your assessment. Have you visited our website? We have lots of good information about metallic mining and the fossil fuel industry. We stopped the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, with a broad coalition of caring and informed folks. We know how bad is the MVP. Poorly designed, corrupt, and super bad for all involved, including the promoters. Check out our gold mining page:
We have enough health problems in Virginia without adding mercury and cyanide to are water and land.systems.
.03 ounces of gold per TON of pulverized rock! Contaminated wells, streams and James River seems way too high a price to pay for anything.
Well I’m from near the James River and Appomattox and there’s signs not to eat the fish outta the james already! I live in WV now and behind our house rusty water comes right out the dirt in the hillside behind our house and another spot infront by the road.
Can someone tell me Where is the mining operations to be proposed? I just bought a home just north of buckingham town off hwy 56. I don’t want my children breathing rock dust every morning
Aston Bay was/is? [we don’t know for sure – as the Buckingham Board of Supervisors voted to allow exploratory metallic mining work without requiring a permit – so there is no oversight] exploring around the Warminster/Sycamore Creek Road area in NW Buckingham. Aston Bay announced in 2021? on their website that they were exploring 2 other sites in Buckingham. Our good guess is along Rt 15, where the gold-pyrite belt is. We guess New Canton, and the Booker Mine – SW of Dillwyn. Check out the map we made of the abandoned mines in Buckingham, including the Warminster area that we know they were/are? exploring.
Have you visited Friends of Buckingham gold mining page? There is a wealth of info there to explore.
Once you get informed and mad enough – will you contact your supervisor and tell them to adopt the rights-based ordinance NOW to protect Buckingham from harm?
This info was in the latest FoB newsletter – please sign up for it!
Metallic Mining game plan
Tell your elected Buckingham leaders how you would be impacted by new metallic mining in the county. Tell them you want both ordinances adopted to stop metallic mining right here in this county. No more delays!
1) Speak up at Supervisor meetings during the public comment period. Second Mondays. Next: February 13. Sign up between 5:30 and 5:55 pm.
2) Email all the supervisors
3) Reach out to your supervisor! Not sure what district you are in? Call the General Registrar, Lindsey Taylor: 434-969-4304
Or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
4) Get 5 friends and or family members to act!
We have the right to clean water and air – but we must claim that right!