Gold vein in a stone. (Getty Images)
A bill that would have banned the use of cyanide in mining and processing operations in Virginia was killed at the last minute Monday.
House Bill 1722 from Del. Shelly Simonds, D-Newport News, was sent back to committee the day before crossover, the deadline by which a chamber must pass a bill in order for the other chamber to consider it. With no meeting for that committee scheduled and only limited time remaining, the move left the bill effectively dead.
“Generally speaking, we’re not in favor of cyanide,” House GOP spokesperson Garren Shipley said Monday in response to a question about the bill’s fate. But, he added, “a number of members … were concerned that it was too broad” in its restrictions on mining operations, particularly as vehicle electrification drives up demand for batteries reliant on minerals.
“We may be in fact circumscribing ourselves,” he said.
Simonds, however, said that while Virginia has deposits of copper, a critical mineral used in battery production, “cyanide is not used in processing copper, or any other critical mineral used in batteries and EVs. Cyanide is used in gold mining and it is a poison that we do not need in our waterways in Virginia.”
Cyanide is commonly sprayed or applied to ore in gold mining to separate out gold from the surrounding rock.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people can be exposed to cyanide through breathing air, drinking water, eating food or touching soil that contains the chemical. Victims of serious cyanide poisoning may develop heart, brain and nerve damage.
Simonds’ bill was introduced in response to a report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine that found Virginia gold mining regulations are inadequate to address the fiscal and environmental risks such operations pose to the state.
The Department of Energy issued a companion report that also concluded Virginia’s existing statutory and regulatory framework is not appropriate for gold mining and processing, as large-scale operations have not existed in the state for 75 years.
“Though questions remain as to whether permit applications will ever be filed for a gold mine, it is generally understood that any such project remains years away,” the Department of Energy report stated. “As such, there is ample time for the General Assembly to consider updating existing frameworks, should it choose to do so.”
Legislation passed in 2021 by Del. Elizabeth Guzman, D-Prince William, initially sought to ban gold mining but was narrowed down to the studies. That 2021 bill was brought forward after Buckingham County officials discovered Canadian gold mining company Aston Bay Holdings was conducting exploratory drilling. The company has since also begun exploration for zinc and copper deposits in Virginia.
Environmental groups at the time pointed to a host of environmental violations that have occurred at the Haile Gold Mine in Kershaw, South Carolina, including the discharging of cyanide. Aston Bay has called Haile an “analogue” of its Virginia discoveries, although CEO Thomas Ullrich later said “even a generous estimation” of the Buckingham site “would suggest something much less than 1/50th the size of Haile.”
The NASEM report found that “cyanide spill events do not pose long-term risks because cyanide degrades in the surface environment relatively quickly. However, because of cyanide’s high acute toxicity, accidental spills have caused mass mortality events of aquatic life and pose an acute human health risk where water affected by the spill is used as a drinking water supply.”
Chris Miller, president of the Piedmont Environmental Council, said central Virginia is already home to mining sites in need of cleanup. Historic mining operations used mercury to harvest gold from rock.
A provision that would have also banned the use of sulfuric acid in mining and processing was removed from the bill in subcommittee.
“We didn’t want to impact current mining operations in Virginia,” said Simonds. “We’re trying to get ahead of what might be coming to Virginia. There are processors who are using sulfuric acid right now.”
The bill received unanimous support in subcommittee and passed committee on a 19-3 vote before being stalled on the floor in a party-line decision.
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