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By Christopher Leyen

In 1990, heavy rainfall overpowered a holding dam at the Brewer Gold Mine in Jefferson, South Carolina, where gold had been pulled from the earth going back to 1828. The spill sent 10 million gallons of the cyanide solution used to process gold into a nearby tributary to the Lynches River, killing aquatic life as far as 50 miles downstream.

In 2015, while attempting to address and remediate polluted wastewater at the abandoned Gold King Mine in Silverton, Colorado, personnel with the Environmental Protection Agency and contractors accidentally released an estimated 3 million gallons of gold mine tailings laced with toxins like lead, mercury and arsenic into a tributary of the Animas River, damaging watersheds in three states and the Navajo Nation. The Animas River ran an eerie shade of orange after the spill and, today, six years later, large stretches of the river are devoid of life because of the toxic pollution.

Even when there isn’t a large-scale spill, gold mines can pollute nearby communities for years, as has been the case at sites like Barite Hill, which was abandoned in 1999 and is still a hazard to clean water and public health.

Whether the pollution came through a massive spill, or through a steady drip, all these mines have one thing in common: they’re Superfund sites. 

With Canadian prospecting company Aston Bay Holdings already eyeing the possibility of large-scale gold mining in Buckingham County, on part of a large mineral belt that runs along Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains from Appomattox County to Fairfax, the implications for water quality and human health would be massive if this industry takes hold in the heart of the commonwealth. 

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

We are grateful the General Assembly passed House Bill 2213 and the associated funding to allow state agencies to study the impact of gold mining in Virginia. But we also know that this is a starting point, not an endpoint, and that until we have laws on the books to hold bad-actor mines accountable and prevent these types of environmental catastrophes on the front-end, our state remains at risk of becoming home to the next Superfund site.

According to the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy, the last recorded gold mining in Virginia was in 1947, which means that we do not have experience regulating modern methods of ore extraction, including cyanide leaching and other chemical-intensive practices that became common in the 1970s and 1980s. 

Our regulations are obviously outdated, and gold mining simply can’t be treated and regulated the same as other mineral extraction taking place in Virginia.

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Modern gold mining and onsite processing is incredibly toxic. Chemicals like cyanide are used to extract minute pieces of gold from rock ore and 99 percent of the earth excavated becomes waste byproduct known as tailings. This solid waste and wastewater contains harmful contaminants like mercury, arsenic and lead that would have to be stored on site in mounds or holding ponds, at risk of contaminating local ground and surface waters or becoming airborne.

If a spill were to occur on the site chosen by Aston Bay near the James River, it could contaminate the watershed that serves as the main source of drinking water for populations centers to the East, including Richmond, as well as harming local water quality.   

The playbook of multinational gold mining corporations is to tempt communities with the promise of economic development, bring in outside industry workers, and extract resources from the community. While mining may only occur for a limited window, this pollution lasts for decades, and under current law, cleanup costs would fall on local communities and taxpayers.

The industry may claim they will be responsible stewards, but without sufficient oversight and specific regulations, these are empty promises — promises that don’t match up with gold mining’s track record. 

Even when things go to plan, gold mining on a large scale comes with environmental contamination and destruction, putting human health and clean water at severe risk. When things don’t go to plan, the results can be catastrophic. 

While lawmakers took important first steps to address this issue in 2021, more work remains ahead of them to pass long-term safeguards. We look forward to working to drive the protections we need to protect Virginia’s environment and clean water from this toxic industry. 

Christopher Leyen serves as senior policy manager for the Virginia League of Conservation Voters. Contact him at [email protected].