NAS agrees to study gold mining

Published 6:00 am Friday, August 13, 2021

Groups from around the state expressed optimism recently that the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NAS) has agreed to study the potential impacts of industrial gold mining on water resources, public health and the environment in Virginia.

The NAS voted to conduct the study after the state Department of Mines, Minerals, and Energy (now the Department of Energy, or DOE) reached out earlier this year as a result of Delegate Elizabeth Guzman’s legislation (HB 2213) establishing a work group to evaluate the impacts of potential large-scale gold mining in the commonwealth. A final “statement of task” between the NAS and DOE was confirmed with the interest groups today, and the NAS has opened nominations for study committee members.

Friends of Buckingham — known for its work to protect Union Hill and Buckingham communities from the now-canceled Atlantic Coast Pipeline — has led the effort since last summer to raise awareness of the gold mining issue after learning that an exploratory company had been drilling core samples in Buckingham County for four years without the knowledge of community members or apparently of county officials.

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“We look forward to a robust public involvement process during the study and are grateful to Delegate Guzman for shepherding the bill that stipulated the need to involve community members, Native American representatives, and the Virginia Council on Environmental Justice, in addition to technical experts in this process,” Friends of Buckingham President Chad Oba said. “We also appreciate the good-faith efforts so far of DOE and the NAS.”

In 2010, the NAS undertook an extensive study of potential uranium mining in Virginia — a type of mining with similar impacts to that of gold mining — due to proposed mining in Pittsylvania County. The state had previously instituted a moratorium on uranium mining that was challenged in court, where it was upheld in 2020, and it remains in effect.

The potential dangers to water quality and public health from industrial gold mining, which often uses cyanide for ore processing and dewatering for maintaining mine sites, are well-documented. The exploratory company prospecting in Buckingham County, Aston Bay Holdings, LTD of Canada, recently announced that it also has agreements with landowners in Campbell and Pittsylvania counties to explore for base metals, including copper, zinc and lead. The mining and processing operations for these metals are very similar to those of gold, leading to concerns among interest groups that these potential mines would have similar harmful effects. Because gold and base metal deposits span Central Virginia from north to south, the impacts of these operations would extend to adjacent and downstream communities in almost half the state, including population centers of Richmond, Hampton Roads, and Northern Virginia, and the Chesapeake Bay.

“NAS’s agreement to do this study is greatly appreciated — and comes at a critical time, as prospecting companies attempt to establish a massive, toxic industry that threatens Virginia’s water resources,” Jessica Sims, the Virginia Field Coordinator for Appalachian Voices, said.

“We are glad to see this study get underway, and we are committed to making sure that affected community members and concerned Virginians have a strong voice in this process. We know about many of the public health risks and environmental harms that come with the gold mining industry. It is critical that all of this be considered — front and center — with sound science guiding this work,” Kristin Davis, senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said.

“It is without doubt that metals mining negatively impacts communities and their water supplies — metals mining is the next major industrial threat to the commonwealth alongside the buildout of pipelines and other fossil fuel infrastructure. Evaluating these impacts is a critical first step in acting to stop this industry from harming Virginia communities,” said Stacy Lovelace of Virginia Pipeline Resisters.