After opposition to gold mining in Buckingham, General Assembly weighs temporary ban and study

By: - February 12, 2021 12:03 am

(Getty Images)

After months of local wrangling over exploratory gold drilling in the forests of Buckingham County, the debate over whether Virginia wants to embrace a new era of gold mining or shut the door on an activity that hasn’t occurred here in decades has arrived at the General Assembly. 

The question “is not just about one locale,” Del. Elizabeth Guzman, D-Prince William, told lawmakers last week during a final House of Delegates vote on a law that would impose a temporary ban on most gold mining in Virginia until July 1, 2023, while also convening a state work group to evaluate its health and environmental impacts. “This bill has broad implications for Virginia.”

While many Americans might think of California when they hear the word “gold,” modern mining of the valuable ore has its roots in the Southeast. The Virginia Gold-Pyrite Belt, stretching from Fairfax County to Appomattox County, has been known since North Carolina discoveries kicked off a southern gold rush in the 1820s.

The commonwealth’s first mine opened near the James River in Amherst County in 1825; others soon followed by the dozens in 10 counties spanning a 140-mile stretch, including Fauquier, Spotsylvania, Orange and Goochland. In 1980, a report by what was then Virginia’s Division of Mineral Resources counted 245 gold mines and prospects in Virginia; a recent count from the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Minerals Information Center database shows the existence of 440. 

Their fanciful names — Belzoro, Bertha and Edith, Tellurium, Emigold, Vaucluse (the latter bought by Henry Ford two months before the 1929 stock market crash) — are now mostly forgotten. Traces remain in places like the unincorporated communities of Goldvein in Fauquier and Gold Hill in Buckingham. They recall a time when, according to the historian Fletcher Green, Virginia mines produced $6 million worth of gold in their first decade and the enterprises attracted capital from northern cities and even England. 

Two factors would spell the death of Virginia’s gold boom: In 1849, the same year the commonwealth’s production peaked, the California Gold Rush began, generating more than 10 times the value of all southern gold mines combined. The outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 dealt a blow to the industry from which it never fully recovered. Production would resume around 1870 but remained low and eventually sputtered out entirely. According to Virginia’s Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy, the last year gold was produced in the state was 1947.

Over the years, prospectors never quite gave up the dream. “The current hot prospect on the Virginia gold belt is, as far as gold is concerned, only lukewarm,” the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported in December 1974, recounting efforts by the newly formed Piedmont Minerals Associates to hit gold north of Mineral. But, the paper concluded, “there is no evidence that the ore contains much gold.” 

A sign on State Route 663 near Union Hill Baptist Church in Buckingham , one of several in the area opposed to Dominion Energy’s Atlantic Coast Pipeline. (Robert Zullo/ Virginia Mercury).

A gold discovery in Buckingham

In fall 2020, the long-buried issue resurfaced in Buckingham County after the discovery that Canadian gold mining company Aston Bay Holdings was conducting exploratory drilling on forestland off Warminster Church Road through a mineral rights lease with the Weyerhaeuser company. In news releases, the company had been trumpeting its find of “a high-grade, at-surface gold vein system at Buckingham as well as an adjacent wider zone of lower-grade disseminated gold mineralization.” 

County officials, though, had been unaware of the activity and believed that because their zoning ordinance did not explicitly permit exploratory drilling in agricultural areas, the work needed to be halted. Because Virginia is a Dillon Rule state where local governments cannot assume any powers not expressly granted by the state, “the general notion is if it’s not a permitted use in a zone, then it’s not allowed,” Buckingham County Attorney E. M. Wright Jr. told the county’s Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors in a joint meeting in November. 

The drilling revelation ignited opposition. The exploration sites lay between one and three miles from the Union Hill community, a majority-Black area in the northwestern portion of Buckingham that had recently fought and won a high-profile battle to prevent the Atlantic Coast Pipeline from building a compressor station in the neighborhood. The pipeline had been cancelled in July, and the president of the grassroots Friends of Buckingham group, Chad Oba, told the Mercury in October that its members “were barely catching our breath” when the gold mine plans hit. 

Attention soon expanded beyond county lines. The Virginia League of Conservation Voters, one of the state’s most prominent environmental groups, quickly raised concerns about both mine tailings, the debris left behind when gold is separated from the surrounding material, and water pollution. 

Tailings, which at modern mines are generally stored in ponds, pose many of the same risks as coal ash, VLCV Senior Policy Manager Chris Leyen said during a news conference for Guzman’s legislation Jan. 29. And in many forms of gold extraction, “you’re using cyanide or other processes that leave behind highly acidic and toxic soil, often for generations. This onsite process often takes the soil and exposes the contaminants to the local water table and to downstream rivers and streams.” 

The effects of that pollution can be major. In 1990, heavy rains caused 10 million gallons of cyanide solution at the now-shuttered Brewer gold mine near Jefferson, S.C. to flow into surrounding waterways, killing fish nearly 50 miles away. After the company abandoned the site in 1999, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency determined the pollution was severe enough to designate it a Superfund site. Another Superfund site mined in the 1990s, the former Barite Hills gold mine also in South Carolina, had to undergo federal remediation for acid drainage. 

In Virginia, 19th- and early 20th-century gold mining has also left a legacy of mercury contamination, said Paul Busch, owner of Big Dawg Resources in Goochland County. Big Dawg is the only company in the state to currently hold a permit from DMME to mine gold, and its small-scale operations, which Busch said cover “much less than 10 acres,” focus on sites mined decades to more than a century ago. In those days, miners used mercury to attract gold in water and sediment they panned or pumped up from stream- and riverbeds. The technique is no longer used in the U.S., but the mercury remains in the soils and waters of the former mine sites and can be released if disturbed. Big Dawg’s work has taken on a dual focus of not only mining the gold left behind on the sites but cleaning up the lingering mercury. 

“All of the old mines, every single one of them, mercury was used on,” said Busch. “And the people who own them now have no idea.” 

In Buckingham, residents’ concerns over the drilling and the possibility of the resumption of mining led to a series of charged local meetings and expert panels convened by the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors. John Chermak, a professor with Virginia Tech’s Office of Geosciences, at the November panel told attendees “the chance of an exploration becoming a mine in the gold industry, the number is usually less than 5 percent.” David Spears, Virginia’s state geologist and director of DMME’s Division of Geology and Mineral Resources, said exploratory drilling had occurred at two other Buckingham sites over the past 40 years “and never turned into a mine.” 

In fact, Spears said later, the Aston Bay discovery was “fairly unusual” because of its western location in the county, where the geology differs from that seen in much of the Gold-Pyrite Belt: “If you look at the historic mines, they pretty much line up right on either side of Route 15,” he said. “Very, very little gold has ever been found to the west of that line.”

Aston Bay Holdings also moved to quiet concerns, emphasizing that no plans for a mine had yet been proposed. 

“Aston Bay, in partnership with local private landowners, is only conducting exploration at this time. We anticipate that several more years of exploration and study are required before a mine can even be proposed,” CEO Thomas Ullrich wrote in an email to the Mercury. He added, “As talk about mining is premature, any talk of potential extraction technology, including cyanidation, is also premature.” 

Residents and opponents, though, flagged the company’s news releases as signs of serious interest. Most concerning to them was a comparison Aston Bay drew in an overview of the Buckingham project on its website: an “analogue,” the company suggested, was the Haile Gold Mine in Kershaw, S.C.

Aston Bay Holdings’ overview of the Buckingham project on the company’s website.

Covering more than 4,500 acres, Haile is today the only active commercial gold mine east of the Mississippi River, according to USGS mineral commodity specialist Kristin Sheaffer. The open-pit operation is owned by Australia-headquartered OceanaGold and over the past six months has been charged with a host of environmental violations by South Carolina officials. In September, regulators levied an $11,200 fine against the mine for repeatedly discharging thallium, a toxic chemical that can cause major organ damage, into waterways. Months later, they imposed a $16,000 fine for 19 additional violations related to a laboratory on the site and told The State newspaper they were also preparing an air quality enforcement order related to the mine.

Ullrich told the Mercury, however, that “there is no indication that mining would be conducted in an open pit or at the massive scale as has been suggested.”

“The mineralized area of interest discovered at our Buckingham project is a single vein approximately 200 yards long by about 2 yards wide. That is about one tenth of an acre at the surface,” he wrote. “Further exploration may increase this footprint, but even a generous estimation of the mineralized area would suggest something much less than 1/50th the size of Haile.” 

Nevertheless, Leyen has remained skeptical: “It seems to me that Aston Bay is telling their investors one thing, and telling us another,” he said. 

Permitting and protection

In January, Buckingham County’s Board of Supervisors voted to allow exploratory drilling to occur by right in agricultural zones, cle0aring the path for additional prospecting. Two days later, Guzman filed her bill requiring examination of gold mining and processing in Virginia and placing a temporary ban on the activity. 

“We have an opportunity now to be proactive instead of reactive,” Guzman told the Mercury in a statement. “Instead of cleaning up a catastrophe after it happens, we can hit the pause button and take a serious look at the potential impacts that gold mining presents to the health and safety of our environment, communities and the miners themselves.” 

Regulations for gold mining do exist in Virginia, advocates of the legislation acknowledge. Any applicant for a state mineral extraction permit must submit plans for operations, drainage and sediment control and reclamation to DMME, including what mine inspector Damien Fehrer told Buckingham officials in November was an assessment of potential impacts on “the overall hydrologic balance” and how the applicant will minimize “adverse effects on water quality and quantity.” A performance bond of $3,000 per acre is also required, intended to ensure funds are available for cleanup even if the permittee goes bankrupt. After permitting, the agency conducts regular environmental and worker safety inspections, with the latter also conducted by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, said DMME spokesperson Tarah Kesterson.

In an email, Ullrich called the existing permitting process “robust and proven,” with “aggressive bonding requirements.” 

“Aston Bay believes the legislators will conclude that adequate processes are in place to safely govern these activities and no further costly studies are required,” he wrote.

Leyen, though, contends that given the amount of time that has passed since Virginia has seen large-scale gold mining and major changes in the way the ore is extracted, “those regulations are not sufficient to prevent the development of situations like those at Brewer and Barite Hill, nor govern an operation the scale of Haile.”

“Unless we pass (House Bill) 2213, we are left to the broad discretion of individual regulators and self-policing by mining companies with little to no tie to the communities that they extract resources from,” he said. “Given the unique risks that modern large scale commercial gold mining and processing pose to our environment, we believe we need to update our regulations before issuing permits.”  

The challenge, said Oba of Friends of Buckingham, is convincing people that the gold mining issue has broader ramifications than the present drilling fight because of the extent of the Gold-Pyrite Belt.

“This is ground zero here, but it could very well spread throughout the state,” she said.

As the legislation has moved through the General Assembly, lawmakers have split on the issue along partisan lines: Democrats in support, Republicans opposing. 

The most vocal objections have come from Del. Matt Fariss, R-Campbell, who has highlighted the economic potential of gold mining, pointing to the former Ridgeway Gold Mine, which was operated by the Kennecott Minerals Company in South Carolina between 1988 and 1999 and has been successfully restored since its closure. 

The average salary at Ridgeway was “$80,000 a year,” Fariss said during one committee hearing. “The people in Buckingham need some $80,000-a-year jobs, and I would hope that if this study is done, it could be sped up not to curtail business in Buckingham County, one of the poorest counties in the state.” 

On the House floor, Guzman agreed that “we do want jobs in this commonwealth.” But, she added, “we want to ensure that these jobs are going to value human beings and protect the public health of Virginia, and this bill is only putting a moratorium on those mining projects over 10 acres.” 

The bill heads to the Senate Committee on Rules Friday morning, but budget proposals unveiled by both chambers Wednesday vary: while the House budget includes the $250,000 DMME has estimated the gold-mining study will cost, the Senate chose not to allot equivalent funds. 

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Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is the Mercury's environment and energy reporter, covering everything from utility regulation to sea level rise. Originally from McLean, she has spent over a decade in journalism and academic publishing. She previously worked as a staff reporter for Chesapeake Bay Journal, the Progress-Index and the Caroline Progress, and her work has been twice honored by the Virginia Press Association as "Best in Show" for online writing. She was chosen for the 2020 cohort of the Columbia Energy Journalism Institute and is a graduate of the College of William and Mary. Contact her at [email protected]

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