Gold mining study begins as discoveries continue in Virginia

Report on potential impacts of gold mining and state regulations due to lawmakers by late 2022

By: - December 21, 2021 12:01 am

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A group of scientists and engineers tasked with evaluating the potential impacts of gold mining on Virginia kicked off work last week with questions on issues ranging from deposits to mining company bonds. 

“We are overdue to look into modern mining techniques,” said Del. Elizabeth Guzman, D-Prince William, during the first meeting of a committee convened by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.  “We have the time now before we commit to this to study the issue and get the full picture of how gold mines will affect those regions.” 

Earlier this year, the Virginia General Assembly passed a law sponsored by Guzman requiring the state to examine the impacts of gold mining and processing and whether existing regulations are sufficient to protect air and water quality. Legislators rejected a provision that would have banned the activities until the conclusion of the study.  

The legislation followed a local fight in Buckingham County over exploratory drilling by Canadian company Aston Bay Holdings. 

Since then, Aston Bay has ramped up its work in Virginia. 

In addition to the Buckingham project on timberlands owned by Weyerhaeuser, the company has begun exploring a site surrounding what it describes as “several historical gold mine workings” roughly 12 miles southeast of the county. A third project known as the Mountain Base Metals Project is exploring potential zinc and copper deposits in Pittsylvania County

Asked about specific locations of the historic gold mine and Mountain Base Metals projects, Sofia Harquail of Aston Bay said in an email that the company is “committed to the privacy of the local landowners we are working on” and that its “exploration work is helping to form a clearer picture of the geology of Central Virginia.”

“Our team is currently working to define the potential for base metals and gold,” she continued. “These projects are in the very early stage and we are working to build a better perspective of what minerals are there.”

Aston Bay has touted its portfolio of Virginia discoveries to investors in recent months. At the end of November, the company announced it would hold a private sale of shares to raise $2 million for the “next phase of exploration” at its Virginia properties.  

In November, company CEO Thomas Ullrich told an analyst at the Metals Investor Forum that Virginia’s lack of permits for exploratory drilling is a “significant advantage” and “definitely one of the reasons why we want to be in that jurisdiction.” 

While gold hasn’t been mined on a commercial scale in Virginia since the 1940s, the state is home to deposits along the Gold-Pyrite Belt stretching from Fairfax to Appomattox counties. Currently only one operation, a small-scale company known as Big Dawg Resources, is permitted by the Virginia Department of Energy to mine gold in the state. 

During the NASEM committee’s first meeting Dec. 15, state geologist David Spears said that officials’ primary source of information on gold deposits is the state database of abandoned mines, many of which show evidence of mercury contamination. 

Mercury was historically used to extract gold but has fallen by the wayside in the U.S. Many large-scale operations, such as the Haile mine in South Carolina, now use cyanide as part of their extraction processes, although other methods such as gravity extraction are also used. 

Asked by committee members whether Virginia has any specific rules for the use of cyanide in extraction, Virginia Department of Environmental Quality Regional Director James Golden said that while he was “not sure what other states may do in terms of that,” Virginia “had this issue come up a couple years ago as it had to do with fracking and identification of chemicals that were proprietary and used in that process.” 

“And at that time, our answer was: We are not going to regulate what’s in it, but we will regulate what’s being discharged,” he said.

Besides permits governing any air and water discharges, a safety license and a reclamation permit for cleanup activities after mining is complete, operations that have been active for fewer than five years must also put up a bond equal to $3,000 per disturbed acre to cover potential cleanup costs, said Michael Skiffington of the Virginia Department of Energy. After five years, operators can then join the state’s bond pool, which allows them to post smaller financial assurances. 

In response to a question from committee member Tom Crafford, a retired U.S. Geological Survey official and Alaska regulator, Virginia Energy mine inspector Damien Ferrer said the $3,000 figure “was probably negotiated between the state and our industry customers.” 

“The average cost of reclamation across the state of Virginia is running probably $8,000 to $12,000 per acre when you talk to the folks in industry or the folks within our office that perform reclamation on these orphan mines,” he said. “The $3,000 per acre is really a fraction of what it’s going to cost in most cases.” 

The NASEM committee has agreed to submit a consensus report to Virginia Energy by Nov. 1, 2022. A separate committee formed by Virginia Energy, DEQ and the Virginia Department of Health will also be completing a parallel study. Both must be transmitted to the General Assembly by Dec. 1, 2022.

Harquail said Aston Bay is “encouraged by the study committee and look forward to their findings on the future of mining in Virginia.”

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Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is Editor-in-Chief of the Mercury and previously its environment and energy reporter. She has worked for multiple Virginia and regional publications, including Chesapeake Bay Journal, The Progress-Index and The Caroline Progress. Her reporting has won awards from groups such as the Society of Environmental Journalists and Virginia Press Association, and she is an alumna of the Columbia Energy Journalism Initiative and Metcalf Institute Science Immersion Workshop for Journalists.