A Republican-dominated House subcommittee on Monday swiftly shot down a bipartisan proposal to study whether Virginia metal mining regulations are sufficient to protect state air and water quality.

The bipartisan House Bill 250, from Del. Shelly Simonds, D-Newport News, and Del. James Edmunds, R-Halifax, would have established a state work group to study the impacts of copper, zinc and lead mining and processing.

The group would also have been charged with examining whether current air and water quality regulations and bonding, reclamation and closure requirements are sufficient.

Mining of the three metals and gold in any area larger than 10 acres would have been prohibited until July 1, 2024, seven months after the group sent a report on its findings to the General Assembly.

Simonds described the measure to the House Studies Subcommittee as a “good governance bill” that would ensure the state did its “due diligence” to protect air and water quality.

Dan Holmes of the Piedmont Environmental Council argued that “it is in our best interest to understand modern techniques for mining and protective measures available in order to ensure our regulations are up to the challenge of protecting public and environmental health for all our communities.”

“With increased demand and rising prices for these metals, it is likely a question of when, not if, we see these mining interests come to Virginia,” he said.

Canadian company Aston Bay Holdings is conducting exploratory drilling for zinc and copper in Pittsylvania County, as well as gold exploration in Buckingham County.

The company’s exploratory drilling for gold in Buckingham prompted the General Assembly to pass a law in 2021 requiring a nearly identical study of the impacts of gold mining. The legislature stripped out a provision that would have banned the activity until the conclusion of the study.

A parallel study of gold mining’s potential impacts on Virginia is being conducted by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.

Gold hasn’t been mined on an industrial scale in Virginia since the 1940s. Michael Skiffington, director of policy and planning for the Virginia Department of Energy, said that lead and zinc haven’t been mined in Virginia since the late 1970s and early 1980s. According to Virginia Energy, copper was last mined in Virginia in 1947.

Demand for all three has been rising, however, as the U.S. increasingly moves away from fossil fuels and toward renewables that rely on metals for solar panels, wind turbines, batteries and other components.

In response to a question from Del. Chris Head, R-Roanoke, about existing rules governing mining, Skiffington said that “we do have regulations in place in our mineral mining program, but some of them with respect to the gold issue that we are currently studying do not speak to the disposing of tailings and that sort of thing.”

The House subcommittee voted 4-2 to reject the bill, with Republicans overriding Democrats.

Simonds said she was disappointed at the proposal’s failure because of the potential of metals mining to impact drinking water.

“We don’t necessarily want to stop mining for minerals like zinc, copper and lead but we do need to know the health risks involved. … Before they start digging you want to know what regulations are on the books,” she said.

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correct the last year copper was mined in Virginia.  It was 1947.

Access the article at Virginia Mercury by Sarah Vogelsong, February 7, 2022

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