Aston Bay says work is ‘still in the early stages’

Published 4:00 pm Thursday, September 8, 2022

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DILLWYN – The idea of a new gold mine in Buckingham County has already led to a new state law, a state study group and calls for the local government to take preventive measures. But officials from Aston Bay, the company handling the prospecting effort, say such a project would be at least several years away.

“We are still in the early stages of exploration,” said Thomas Ullrich. He is the CEO of Aston Bay Holdings, the Canadian company currently prospecting in Buckingham. “Much more exploratory work needs to be done.”

In April 2019, Aston Bay announced they were beginning to search for gold in Buckingham County. In statements given in March 2019 and July 2020, company officials declared their drilling confirmed a small “high-grade, at-surface gold vein system at Buckingham, as well as an adjacent wider zone of lower-grade disseminated gold mineralization.” In other words, they found enough to keep going.

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But just confirming the vein exists isn’t enough. They need to know how far it stretches.

More details about the gold vein

Ullrich said the gold vein is almost vertical, approximately one to two meters wide, 200 meters in length and extends into the subsurface to about 100 meters deep. That’s what the work crews found so far.

“This is contained in a very small footprint, on the order of a few acres,” Ullrich said. “It is possible that the vein extends deeper and farther laterally along (the) strike. Of course, this is what the local landowners, the holders of the mineral rights, would like, as well as Aston Bay.”

There’s one important point here. Ullrich mentioned the local landowners. At one point, Aston Bay held the right to prospect on 4,953 acres of land in Buckingham County. They do not, however, outright own the land. In each case, they’re working with, and negotiating the rights from, local landowners. And that number is constantly changing.

As of Friday, Sept. 2, that number stood at 2,500 acres.

“Exploration is a process of going from the large to the small,” Ullrich said. “We initially need to investigate a larger area, then refine to where the potential is greatest.”

He added that most of the 2,500 acres aren’t actually the target area. Instead, they’re included because a lease agreement has to cover entire parcels of land, even if the company is only interested in a portion of that. He estimates the area of high interest to be under 1,000 acres currently, and expects that to also be reduced.

For example, the Buckingham gold vein as currently identified, is under six acres.

The mining timeline for Aston Bay

As for a timeline on when work might be finished, first it has to be restarted. The company hasn’t done any work in Buckingham since early 2020.

“We have conducted only preliminary exploratory drilling on the local landowners’ properties at Buckingham, and none for the past two years,” Ullrich said. “We have several quality potential projects, but a limited amount of funds. Over the last year and a half, we have been investing in the landowners in another county. We look forward to investing in Buckingham again.”

That investment is expected to begin this fall in several ways.But first, it’s important to note one thing. Even when Aston Bay completes their work, that’s not a guarantee of a gold mine in Buckingham. Aston Bay is a prospecting company, not a mining operation.

That means they search for gold, silver or other minerals, identify a location, and eventually negotiate a lease to mine. Aston Bay then sells the lease to a mining company. The landowner then gets a royalty payment, a percentage of value of gold as it is mined, from the mining company.

They can do this because under Virginia law, prospecting doesn’t require a state permit if you’re searching for anything other than uranium.

But don’t expect mining leases to be negotiated anytime soon. Ullrich says the Buckingham operation is still in the early stages of prospecting. According to the U.S. Geological Survey and the World Gold Council, a typical prospecting effort takes between five to 10 years.

What happens next?

Here locally, Ullrich expects to restart both drilling and surface exploration this fall. He also said several additional landowners in the area have requested that the company examine their property, to determine if there’s anything of interest.

At the same time, work on regulating gold mining continues in the state. As a result of HB2213, the General Assembly set up a work group to study the issue. The idea is to evaluate the impacts of gold mining on the area. The work group looks into the effects gold mining will have on the environment, including public health in general and the air and water quality.

Are existing regulations strong enough to protect air and water quality? Are there areas where mining needs to be banned? To answer those and other questions, experts in mining, hydrology, toxicology and other fields are being brought in. Also representatives of potentially affected communities in localities with significant deposits of gold are to be included. There will be two more public hearings for the group between now and November, both of which are currently unscheduled.

After hearing from experts and holding public hearings, the group will put together a report by December. The General Assembly will discuss that in their next session, which begins in January 2023.