Lawmakers agree to gold mining study but strip out temporary ban

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Legislation requiring Virginia to study gold mining and its effects on health and the environment is headed to the governor, but without an earlier provision that would have banned any large-scale gold mining of over 10 acres in the state until July 2023. 

On Thursday, the House of Delegates agreed to the modified version of the bill that cleared the Senate Tuesday. 

The Senate Committee on Rules removed the temporary moratorium on gold mining Feb. 12 with little discussion after Weyerhaeuser, a forest products company that owns land in Buckingham County where Canadian company Aston Bay Holdings is conducting exploratory drilling for gold, and the Virginia Transportation Construction Alliance testified in support of the study but opposed the ban. 

“Placing a moratorium on permit issuance is simply premature in our opinion while this study is underway,” said Katie Hellebush, a lobbyist for Weyerhaeuser. “Several layers of adequately protective permitting processes exist from local to federal levels and address each concern outlined in this bill.”

The legislation, which was carried by Del. Elizabeth Guzman, D-Prince William, stemmed from concerns about Aston Bay’s drilling in Buckingham and the company’s comparison of the site’s potential in an investor statement to the Haile gold mine in South Carolina. That 5,000-acre mine is the only active operation of its kind east of the Mississippi and has recently been charged with numerous environmental violations by South Carolina regulators.

Gold has not been mined in Virginia on a large scale for decades. The only company currently mining gold in the commonwealth is Big Dawg Resources in Goochland, which targets small, previously mined sites under 10 acres in size while also cleaning up mercury pollution. 

Heidi Dhivya Berthoud of the Friends of Buckingham group, one of several to oppose a resumption of gold mining, argued during hearings that a study “will give us an opportunity to do a real accounting of the true costs of the impacts of modern-day large-scale gold mining to Virginia’s public health, the drinking water of millions and local and state economies.”

After the House vote accepting the removal of the temporary ban, Guzman said the legislature “had an opportunity to be proactive instead of reactive, to hit the pause button to prevent damage to the health of our communities, water and environment.”

“While I am disappointed the Senate did not see the value in that, I am thankful that they are willing to support a work group to learn more about the risks that gold mining presents to our families and environment,” she said. 

The legislation will now go to Gov. Ralph Northam, who can sign, veto or amend the bill. The governor’s office did not immediately respond to a question about whether the administration supports the legislation.